Thursday, March 26, 2020

Germany and the Columbine Effect

Whatever the outcome of this virus thing will be, we can be certain that in five or ten years, we will realize our understanding today was completely wrong.

Being "on the ground" and seeing things at a granular level often results in myopia.  We tend not to see the big picture, until much later on.  Immediately after 9/11 most of us didn't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'ite, Iran and Iraq, or Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera (as illustrated by this SNL skit, which seemed to be equating the television network with the terrorist organization.  Of course, some on the Right claim that the two are indistinguishable).

Anyway, within months, we were invading the wrong country, and the rest is history.  At the time, though, we all felt - based on the tee-vee nooze - that invading Iraq was the answer.  Anyone who said otherwise was shouted down as unpatriotic or worse, sympathetic to terrorists.

Today, we see the same effect at work.  Anyone who suggests that perhaps we are over-thinking this, or that maybe it won't be as bad as people think, is shouted down as cruel or crass.  "People are dying!" they scream.   Hundreds of people are indeed dying - in a nation of 330 million.  Thousands are dying - on a planet of billions.  Meanwhile, other illnesses and causes - including our own transportation system - kill far more people, but no one really cares about that - or they have gotten used to the slaughter on the roads.   Familiar death is acceptable death.

One of the largest killers on the planet - responsible for one out of five deaths annually, or over five million people, is one you may have never heard of, but which I am quite familiar with - sepsis or peritonitis.  When an infection ravages the body, it basically shuts down organ after organ until you die.   Having had diverticulitis for about three decades now, I am all-too-aware of this, and how it will likely kill me someday, in a very gruesome and painful manner.  Simply put, if you get an infection in  your abdominal cavity, because, for example, your intestines burst, there isn't much they can do for you, other than pump you full of antibiotics and hope for the best.   A friend of mine just got back from a nine-day hospital stay  - not his first either - from sepsis related to intestinal blockage.

But since such illnesses are not spread like a virus, and since there is a familiarity with them, you rarely hear about them.  The fact there is no real cure for them, either, is one reason why you don't hear about them much, either.  It is like highway deaths - we have grown to accept this as part and parcel of the cost of doing business.   40,000 people nationwide, 1.2 million worldwide, every year.  Likely someone you know, too.   But I digress.

I wrote before about the tenth anniversary of Columbine, and how after a decade, we finally realized that everything reported at the time was 100% wrong.  Not just slightly off, but completely fucking wrong.  The only thing the media got right was the names of the two creeps who did it:
Ten years after the Columbine massacre, the television news reports to us that, well, everything they've reported to us over the last ten years about that "story" was, um, wrong.   The story about two Goth teens in the "Trench-coat Mafia" who were bullied by "jocks" and out to get "Christians" was, well, wrong.   No such "Trench-coat Mafia" existed at the time, the two kids were not members of it, they were not "Goth" freaks, they were not bullied, and they did not single out any specific person or group.  Rather, they were just two mentally ill people with guns.  Not a very exciting story is it? Just tragic.
The same will be true about this virus as with 9/11 and with Columbine.   Five or ten years from now, things will be readily apparent that today we can't see.  And my gut reaction is that we may be over-reacting, and maybe (just maybe) the mayhem and fear we are seeing is being aided and abetted by our friends at the Russian Internet Research Agency, who love to divide us and spread fear and uncertainty. Perhaps it is they who are behind the recent cyber-attacks on the World Health Organization.

A recent article in the news questions why Germany has such a low death rate.  By low, we are talking 0.4% or so.   There are a number of possible answers:
1.  Germans have some sort of genetic immunity to this virus. 
2.  German health care is better, so people are surviving. 
3.  More people are tested in Germany, so they are catching this sooner, before it turns into terminal pneumonia. 
4.  They are testing more people, so the actual death rate is being seen.
Number one seems far-fetched.  Numbers two and three sound plausible.  Number four gives one pause.

Widespread testing hasn't been done worldwide for the simple reason that such tests are not widely available, and thus limited to at-risk persons or persons showing symptoms.   As a result, the death rates calculated based on the number of people tested are much higher, and that may explain why Italy has such a high death rate and why Germany has such a low one.  The rates are based on the number of reported cases not the actual number of infections (which is an unknown number).

In fact, many people may have had this virus, gotten over it, and are now immune, as recently happened to a famous football coach.   Expect to see more stories like that in the coming weeks.  People who are immune to this virus (and cannot spread it) have no reason to stay at home and quarantine.  They will want to go back to normal life - soon.  But there is no test to determine whether you have the antibodies to this virus - yet.  So we have no way of knowing how many people are infected or were infected, and may, in fact, never know.

In fact, Mark and I may have already had this, along with some friends of ours.   As I noted back in early February, we were both down with a "bad cold" whose symptoms seem remarkably like those of this virus.   Sinus headaches, bad congestion, and it started spreading to the chest, before it went away.  We had just returned from a trip to Florida a couple of weeks earlier.  Hmmmm.......  But of course, that could just be cold and flu season, and now we are into allergy season (yellow pollen falling like snow!).   Like I said, we may never know.  Once this blows over, there will be little incentive to test for the antibodies.

There is a lot of talk about "herd immunity" in the press, and that ultimately will likely be what causes this to die down.  Simply stated, if no one is immune, and one person comes back from Wuhan China (where this all started, and no that is not racist to say that, and no, the source of this virus is not up for debate) and sneezes on five people, they, in turn, sneeze on five more, and so on and so forth and it spreads like wildfire.   This is, basically, the definition of pandemic.  This happens every year in cold and flu season, and yes, a lot of elderly people die from that as well, but perhaps not as many as from this new virus.  Since colds and the flu are recurring, WHO doesn't define them as a pandemic - but their definition as it is, is vague at best.

But if half the population gets this virus and recovers from it (which is very likely, given the relatively low mortality rates reported) then those people cannot catch it again or transmit it.  The one person who sneezes on five people infects only half of them, who in turn infect only half again. The curve flattens not necessarily because of quarantine, but because people get over it - and thus transmission, even to those vulnerable, decreases.

The initial mortality rates were reported as about 3% from our friends in China - and everyone knows the Chinese State Media is almost as good as source of accurate information as Fox News and CNN!  Actually they all suck. The State Media of China is motivated to spin things in favor of the government.  American news media spins things so they generate click revenue (and these days, they are having an orgasm).  Since vast numbers of people in China likely remain untested, it may be impossible to know the actual mortality rate, even there.

Like I said, we'll know in five or ten years what the real answer is. Who knows?  Maybe it has a much higher mortality rate - but nothing seems to indicate that so far.  I suspect what is going on in Germany might be the real clue.

But of course, to even discuss this is to bring out the hysterical types from Facebook - the restroom vigilantes and the damners and shamers and the torch and pitchfork crowd - all egged on by our friends in Russia.  Facebook people - there is a special place in hell for them.

The real tragedy is that this virus kills people the same way colds and the flu does.  If the infection spreads to the lungs, your immune system will flood your lungs with white blood cells and whatnot and you basically drown.  Draining the lungs helps, along with antibiotics to help with secondary infections.  Ventilators help you breath until the cure takes effect - or you die.  If you have pre-existing problems with your lungs or heart, dying is far more likely, if not inevitable - like I said, this is how a lot of people die every year from colds and the flu.  Living here on retirement island, I see this happen to friends every year.

The mortality rate of this virus, however, is much higher than traditional cold or flu viruses, and thus hospitals are being over-run with cases, and not enough staff or equipment to handle it.  It is not that we are seeing millions of cases, or even hundreds of thousands, but even mere thousands can overwhelm the system which is used to having hundreds, at best.

An awful lot of elderly and infirm people will die in the next few weeks, to be sure.  And this is tragic.  But it isn't the end of the world, either.  Eventually, this will turn around.  More and more people will develop immunity, having been exposed to the virus and not dying.  Many may not even show symptoms.  You may have already had it and not know it.   Others, particularly the elderly who remain quarantined and practice safety guidelines, may remain uninfected.

But a lot of the nonsense being batted around today is just that - nonsense.   People are afraid - and fear is never an emotion to be trusted.

As the extreme efforts being used today to contain the virus illustrate, it is damn near impossible to contain a virus.   We are fortunate that the mortality rate of this virus appears to be only 3%.   In the future, if confronted with a more lethal virus.... well, maybe this is just practice.