Covid-19: all over but the shouting

March 19, 2020

There is no publicly known rational basis for continuing the current national response to the Wuhan virus beyond this weekend, so either government knows something we don't, or it's all politics, panic, and stupidity from here.

A note added April 3rd: of course there are no problems politicians can't make worse. In this case the management adage that you get more of what you pay for, applies. In Countries like Canada, the U.K. and Italy where medical service providers are paid by the state those payments tend to come in the form of program funds.  Program funding means that the service provider has a fixed annual budget for whatever service is funded, and those monies cannot be allocated outside that service.  Thus the nominal cost of care for a patient diagnozed with X depletes the program funds for X - and that means that when government allocates new monies to deal with something like a pandemic, costs for patients who can be diagnosed with whatever is being extra-funded do not come out of the normal budget and so amount to free revenue.

As a result people who die from simple cardiac failure or anything else but who may once have been exposed to the covid-19 virus are now routinely listed as dying from covid-19.  In reality the straw that breaks the camel's back doesn't weigh much, but weight the camel's load according to the health care provider's financial interest, and that straw can outweigh the rest of the load.

The test for this is easy: simply notice that overall death rates in places like Italy and Canada aren't going up - meaning that essentially every new covid-19 death seems to reduce death from other causes by one.

Oh, and there's a fun corollary: most of what's going on in the United States reflects the Obama administration's use of regulation to effectively nationalize large parts of the health care system.

The last week (March 13th through 20th) saw three big developments:

  1. a number of highly qualified groups published analyses showing that both death and hospitalization rates due to this virus are negligible from a national management perspective however important they may be to affected individuals;

    For example, researchers at the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine just offered a very detailed analysis of the spread and severity of illness on the Diamond Princess cruise ship:  3,711 people on board in what looks like an ideal petri dish for the disease of whom 619 eventually tested positive, and 8 died. Extrapolated to the American population their numbers suggest that letting this virus loose in United States would have barely noticeable effects: far below those of seasonal flu.

  2. numerous highly qualified and credible groups announced significant progress with respect to both vaccines and treatment protocols against this disease;

    For example, the vaccine candidate from Moderna is now in active human trials while Dr. James M. Todaro et al just offered a preview of one of several very positive reviews of the use of quinine in combination  with an antibiotic as both a preventive and treatment.

  3. several visible and usually aggressive dogs resolutely failed to bark.

    For example, obvious at risk populations like California's homeless are neither dying nor falling ill at above normal rates - and neither are prison inmates.

  4. (Added April 9th) An effective treatment protocol proven across thousands of cases has been published by a group of American physicians.

So why continue the state of emergency?

There are really only two possibilities:

  1. either those in charge know something significant we don't; or,
  2. the process, once started, developed a momentum of its own as some major players found benefit in it while others became increasingly afraid to take personal responsibility for either actions or advocacy that could later turn out to be wrong in fact and would certainly be perceived now as contrary to correct opinion.

The case for terrifying secret knowledge is easy to make: consider, for example, the deaths in in Italy and Iran or the reality that the Chinese communists would never have willingly suffered the loss of face associated with the Wuhan lock down over a few thousand dead peasants.

Fortunately, it's equally easy to destroy: no one believes that Washington's permanent bureaucracy could keep such a secret for longer than few hours - and there are simpler explanations for what happened in China, Italy, and Iran.  We know, for example, that the virus propagates along human networks -i.e. largely through personal contact- and that most of those who count in both China and Iran are among the oldest, most medically vulnerable, and socially predatory members of the two populations. Assume, therefore, a high level delegation from Beijing visiting the bio-weapons lab in Wuhan on its way first to Iran and then home, and you have the basis for a story explaining what we see happening there. The story in Italy is different, of course, but equally easy to understand: the area has a significant and highly active Chinese population; the affected are almost all old, medically challenged, and poor; the public health system is among the weakest in Europe, and the use program funding in socialized healthcare provides a strong incentive to classify any death as caused by the covid-19 virus.

Another April 3rd note: it is now an "obvious" hypothesis that this virus does something unusual: it mutates with every new transmission generation and becomes significantly less potent each time. As a result we can assume that essentially 100% of those first infected died; while, six generations later, the death rate is below 1%.  If this is in fact true, the original Chinese reaction, the death rate among the leadership in Iran, the occasional cluster with a 16% or higher death rate, and the over-reaction among western governments all make perfect sense.

The alternative, that this is a panic being fanned and exploited by the left wing alliance of media, billionaires, and professional democrats is easier to support but much harder to debunk.

The politically visible left, for example, is making no obvious effort to conceal its deep contempt for normal people in their eagerness to hype the panic as a means of burying the Trump administration under an avalanche of economic and social destruction.

So what's going to happen next? Again, I see just two extremal choices:

  1. the thing plays out on its own over a month or two as Americans slowly start to realize that the threat doesn't remotely justify the response and countries like Canada eventually follow suit; or,
  2. the president's allies set a trillion dollar trap for the short sellers now bringing down Wall Street and he springs it with a press conference announcing major progress in both prevention and treatment, waivers on applicable FDA and related regulations, the re-establishment of the short seller uptick rule, and major de-escalations in public health, financial, and border control counter-action.

Either way, however, it's all over but the politics.





Britain is in danger of repeating its post-war mistakes  Matt ridley writes:


"In search of wisdom about how an officious government reluctantly relaxes its grip after an emergency, I stumbled on a 1948 newsreel clip of Harold Wilson when he was president of the Board of Trade. It’s a glimpse of long-forgotten and brain-boggling complexity in the rationing system. ‘We have taken some clothing off the ration altogether,’ he boasts, posing as a munificent liberator. ‘From shoes to bathing costumes, and from oilskins to body belts and children’s raincoats. Then we’ve reduced the points on such things as women’s coats and woollen garments generally and... on men’s suits.’

Does this remind you of anything? One day in November, George Eustice, the environment secretary, uttered the immortal words that a Scotch egg ‘probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service’, only for Michael Gove to say the next day that ‘a couple of Scotch eggs is a starter, as far as I’m concerned’, later correcting himself to concede that ‘a Scotch egg is a substantial meal’. This is the sort of tangled descent into detail that central planning always causes. We have seen it again and again over the past year. What is essential travel? Is a picnic exercise? Can you go inside a pub to get to its outside space? Ask the man from the ministry.

Three years after the second world war ended, the government was still micromanaging the decisions of consumers. Incredibly, it was nine years of peace before rationing ceased altogether. Bread was rationed for the first time in 1946, potatoes in 1947. Only then did the slow liberalisation of shopping begin. Flour was derationed in 1948, clothes in 1949, petrol, soap, dried fruit, chocolate biscuits, treacle, syrup, jellies and mincemeat in 1950, tea in 1952, sweets in 1953, cheese and meat in 1954. The black market thrived.


That's not a possibility I thought of in March of last year - but it sure is obvious today.

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