Monday, March 30, 2020

Virus Paranoia

It will be years before we can separate the fact from fiction with regard to this virus.  But some stories seem to be more alarmist than informative.

People are freaking out - well, some of them, anyway - with regard to this virus.  My stinking hippie communist brother sends me a message ("sent from my iPhone") that they are hunkering down in their million-dollar-plus home and sending out for groceries from Whole Foods - and then washing them in bleach.   I think the bleach may kill them before the virus does!  Chlorine is nothing to be trifled with, let me tell you.  Nor is ammonia.  I have experience with both.

But I digress.

There is a lot of paranoia going on about this virus.  Yes, it is prudent to take precautions.  Even with precautions, people will still get infected - no system is 100% perfect.   To make in 100% perfect, life as we know it would cease to exist.  And the way it is going, it is bad enough as it is.

But sadly, many politicians are using this to air their political grievances - on both sides of the aisle.  Democrats are blaming Trump, Republicans are blaming Democrats, and the New York Times is blaming capitalism in general.  None are useful efforts or accomplish anything.  All are shameful - trying to capitalize on a pandemic for political advantage or to generate click-through revenue.

Of course, it is we who are to blame for clicking on these articles or listening to these politicians as they try to lay blame on one another.  Maybe 2020 will be the year we stop being raging true believers in political causes, whether it is tea-party rightists, libertarians, liberalism, or socialism.  Maybe - just maybe - people will stop looking for universal answers to complex problems and settle for a working and functioning government.

What am I saying?  Nah!  We'll go right back to the same old bullshit we left off with - if we even stopped for a microsecond.

The media has been particularly culpable in this click-bait frenzy.  Not a day goes by without some article headlined about a "young, healthy person" who got the virus. The underlying message is fear.  "This could happen to you, buddy! It ain't just grandma keeling over dead!"  But the reality is, of course, that while anyone can get sick from this virus, the severity depends on a number of factors, including age, health, and plain damn luck. Yes, in any statistical distribution, there will be anomalies.  Some "healthy" young guy may die from this, but that doesn't mean all young healthy people will - or even all old, infirm people will.

But hey, common sense doesn't generate clicks - alarmist articles with click-bait titles do.

Another recent boner, reported in Newsweek and The Daily News, is that the virus death toll may be under-reported in China, and this factual investigative reporting is based solely on anecdotal reports of delivery of cremation urns in China.  We are told that the death toll in China may be under-reported by a factor of ten because tens of thousands of cremation urns have supposedly been delivered to the Wuhan region.

But as the article notes, in that area, tens of thousands of people die under normal circumstances in that area in that given time period, and the excess number of urns really amounts to a couple of thousand  - about the amount of the reported death toll from the corona virus by the Chinese government:
In the fourth quarter of 2019, Wuhan also saw 56,007 cremations, a figure 1,583 higher than the fourth quarter of 2018, and 2,231 more than the fourth quarter of 2017, according to data released by the Wuhan civil affairs agency. In 2019, the Wuhan population grew by only 1.1 percent from 2018, according to a U.N. projection. These figures could indicate that the novel virus' emergence in December caused an increase in deaths—a trend that likely will have carried through to the first quarter of this year.
Don't get me wrong, the Chinese government is a lying sack of shit.  But Newsweek magazine and The Daily News (which is a tabloid) are not exactly trusted sources of information. What is interesting about this statistic is that it illustrates how the underlying death rate is higher than we think.   50 million people die every year - sort of puts a couple thousand into perspective, doesn't it?

Again, this is not to trivialize the virus.  This is only to point out reality.  The Union of Biddies, Bats, and Busybodies can take their Facebook shaming and damning elsewhere.  I'll be so glad when this is over and they can go back to Parcheesi club and torment each other, rather than the rest of us.

Most people would read the Newsweek article and think, "50,000 people dead!  That's a lot!"  But talk to a friend who works in a funeral home sometime, and you'd be surprised how many people "check out" on a daily basis, even in a small town.  But again, death in America is something we don't talk about - something deemed shameful, I guess.

But getting back to this "News Story" - what is the source of it?  Social Media.  The "reports" are based on anecdotal data posted by individuals claiming to have "seen" a delivery of 2,000 urns - at one funeral home alone!  But again, in a region that sees 50,000 deaths per quarter under normal circumstances, a couple-thousand urns is a drop in the bucket.

Oh, and this week is "Tomb sweeping out week" in China, or we call it here in the West, "TidyTomb"(tm).   So many of these urns could be used to replace old or broken ones.   It is implied in the story, but not said.

But then again, such things do not make for good clickbait headlines.   And what makes for a good clickbait headline is fear and lots of it.  Fear of missing out (FOMO) or fear of death, or fear of losing money, or fear of crime, or just plain unfocused fear.  Fear is not an emotion to be trusted.

It should be noted, too, that a lot of this fear and angst isn't being generated by old busybodies or even click-bait news media, but by Russia and China themselves (along with other countries).  China tried, for a week or so, to promulgate a conspiracy theory that the virus wasn't of Chinese origin, but a bio-weapon unleashed by the United States.  The Chinese government was laughed at for this clumsy attempt at propaganda - they apparently believed the lies they told their own people would play on a world stage.

Since then, they have withdrawn to social media - amplifying the efforts of the Russian Internet Research Agency by spreading rumors on social media (or liking or upvoting rumors or commenting on them, or linking to them, etc.)   They realize that telling baldfaced lies will get you laughed at, but putting up a Facebook page will get you "likes" and links.

So we have to be wary of that.  And one way to do this is to get off social media - it is poison for your brain, plain and simple.  The fact that Al Qaeda recruits people to become suicide bombers on social media should be evidence enough of that.  It is like going to the "Free Seminar" put up by the religious cult, the MLM scheme, or the Timeshare company - you can go if you want to, but you risk losing your mind, an awful lot of money, or both.   Why even go to such things?

What's the harm in all of this?  Only that, over time, these overblown articles will be shown to be the lies they are.  And when that happens, people will start to think maybe everything they are being told is a lie.  A lot of folks already are thinking that - which is why they discount good advice but believe anything they read on Facebook.  And when that happens, folks will start to think maybe this quarantine thing is overblown and.... that could lead to trouble.

The other problem is that people will mistrust their government and media even more.  As I noted in an earlier posting, the "pseudo-science" breathlessly reported on by the press (usually press-release news) tells people that, according to surveys, or some other form of unreliable data, that what we thought was good for you is now bad for you, or vice-versa.  So Joe Reader says to his buddies, "Those scientists don't know anything!  One day they tell you drinking is bad for you, and now they say a glass of wine is good for your heart!"

The media isn't interested in informing people, so much as entertaining them. Network news programs are classified as "entertainment" - fiction, not non-fiction.  They are not a good source of information.  And neither are newspapers, anymore - if they ever were.

I guess you kind of have to parse these things out - read the articles with a skeptical frame of mind, and be wary of one-sided stories or anything that sells you fear.  You should also be wary of anything that sound too-good-to-be-true or even things that are convenient to you, personally.    Usually, those are lies.

We're going to be all right.  No, really.  This isn't the end of the world.  Life will go on as before, even if the economy enters recession.   People live through recessions and even depressions.   I have - more than once.   During an era of 10%+ inflation, I had a job, a car, and an apartment - and later a house.   And that was in high-unemployment tax-happy New York!  At the time, though, things didn't seem all so bad - because in reality, they weren't.

We've survived far worse - we'll survive this.   But that sort of talk doesn't generate clicks!