Saturday, April 18, 2020

Causation and Covid - Why Contact Tracing Won't Work

People look too much to causation to solve their problems.

I mentioned before about causation. It's a legal principle that is taught to confuse young law students but has no real application in real life.

Outside of the law, it really has no application in your personal life, either.  People get into a wreck with their motorcycle and say it was "the other guy's fault" because he turned left in front of them.  But if you own a motorcycle for any length of time you should expect other people to do really stupid things and be prepared to react in time.  Driving recklessly fast means you have no reaction time to respond to other people's stupid actions.  You should expect people to be stupid.  Expecting them to be perfect all the time is what is really stupid.   And by the way, this goes for cars as well as motorcycles.

There have been a lot of gee-whiz-bang stories in the press about "contact tracing" in order to suppress the Corona Virus. So-called disease detectives are going to go around and find out who got the virus from who, and trace it back to the original Typhoid Mary and thereby find out everyone that was possibly infected and then quarantine them.  It's a nice fantasy, but it falls down in reality.

Even President Trump is in on this, planning to hire "hundreds" of virus detectives to track who was infected.  Maybe that was a good idea back in December, now it is too late.  You can safely assume at this point that most of the population has been exposed, or will be, shortly.  You'd need hundreds of thousands of such "detectives" to track the virus at this point - perhaps millions.  By the time you establish a database and train all these people, well, the point is moot.

Officials had announced that they felt that one particular person coming from China, may have started the spread of the Corona Virus.  However quite soon after that, other people came down with the virus - who had no connection, tenuous or otherwise, to the original person.  It was only then they realized probably several people who flew over from China or Europe had brought the virus with them.  In other words, it could not be traced to one person and then blamed on them.

I mentioned this before with relation to the HIV virus.  Back in the 1980's, if you wanted to get tested for HIV, they would ask you for names and addresses and phone numbers of all your sex partners.  Of course, this discouraged people from getting tested.  Not only that, in that era of anonymous sex, most people didn't know the names and phone numbers of their sex partners, so it was kind of a stupid and pointless task.

I think with this new virus, it is even more so.  Presuming you could find this Typhoid Mary character who brought the virus over here, you would have to find everyone they've been in contact with, either formally or casually.  If they walked into a Walmart to buy groceries, they potentially infected everyone in the store.  How do you find out the names and addresses of all of those people?  Do you put up a public service announcement?  Or do you go to the cash register receipts and try to chase them by their credit card numbers?

In the time it takes you to do this, the dozens if not hundreds of people in that Walmart have been to other stores and restaurants and other locations . It quickly becomes an impossible task even for an army of so-called Detectives.

In other words, the idea of "virus detectives" is stupid - and another example of politicians pretending to "do something" even if the something they are doing is ineffective and wasteful.

Once again, causation is proved to be pointless.  Just like with the motorcycle example, there's really no point in trying to prove who is at fault or what caused the accident.   You can blame China all you want - what does that prove?  We're all still infected.  All you can do is take precautions.  In the case of HIV it is to wear a condom. In the case of the Corona Virus it is to practice safe social distancing, and wear a mask and possibly gloves if you were in close proximity to other people.  And if you are elderly or infirm and at high risk, then the best solution is to limit contact with people entirely, at least until this blows over.

Contact tracing?  I doubt that will ever amount to much of anything.  Maybe in one or two instances you may be able to quarantine some folks, but that only helps them after they've been exposed.  And now that the entire country is been effectively quarantined or is at least practicing social distancing, I'm not sure these efforts are really worthwhile.

But on the other hand, the means by which they will trace people, well, it opens up a can of worms.  Some are proposing using cell phone data to track people's movements, or facial recognition software or other electronic monitoring means.   Hey, I have a great idea - why not implant a tracking chip in everyone, and then the government will know what we're doing all the time!  I should Patent that idea!

Desperate times call for desperate measures, some say.  But I am not sure that 0.2% of the population dying from a virus really counts as "desperate" times just yet.  It is true that during times of epidemic, natural disaster, or war, governments tend to assert more power, sometimes justified, sometimes not.  And sadly, the torch-and-pitchfork parade types tend to pile on with these measures.

Doubt me?  Ask any Japanese person who was interned during World War II.  Not only did the government basically take away all their possessions and throw them into concentration camps, the general population went along with it.   Scarily, today, we see people shaming and damning Chinese people for this virus.  In China, they are shaming and damning Africans.   It seems these sort of incidents do not bring out the best in humanity.

"We're all in this together," everyone chants, but I don't believe this for a minute.  Doubt me?  Go to the toilet paper aisle in any grocery store and see how piggy-piggy human beings can be - as well as utterly fucking irrational.

During wartime, governments can get away with things never imagined during peacetime.  You can ration food, gasoline, and other goods.  You can control peoples lives to a great extent.  During natural disasters, governors are all-too-willing to declare "Marshal Law" and oftentimes Sheriff's deputies go on a shooting spree, as happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (but oddly enough was one of the real horror stories that was under-reported.  The made-up stuff got headlines!).

You give people a little power, and they go nuts.   You give them a lot of power and they take over - and they won't willingly surrender that power, either.   Once we start tracking people in real-time, on a daily basis, to track a disease, it will be easier to justify this in "normal" times, or what becomes the new normal.    In fact, this is already happening - Twitter just lost a case where they wanted to disclose how many surveillance requests they get from the government each year.  Just how many - a number is all.   I suspect that number would scare you.  And I suspect it might scare you to find out your accounts online were monitored.

It is odd, that people get all bent out of shape about speed cameras - where the government issues tickets based on speed radar.  It is a pretty straightforward situation - the person tagged was in fact breaking the law and doing something that was a detriment to society.   Tracking people who have done nothing wrong, on the other hand, is deemed acceptable.

If you want to enter this country, you may be asked to unlock your phone and let the border guards search it.  Your username and password for "social media" will be demanded.  Frankly, this worries me, as they probably will toss my ass in jail when I tell them I am not on Facebook.  "What do you mean, you're not on Facebook?  Everyone is on Facebook!   Turn around and put your hands behind your back!"

In the UK, such tracking is more commonplace.   Security cameras are everywhere in large cities, and facial recognition software is used to track individuals.  On the one hand, I don't have a problem with this, as I am not one of these paranoid "privacy" weirdos who thinks there every movement is of keen interest to secret government agents (narcissism much?).  I am not doing anything illegal, or desire to do so, so I really don't care - or didn't anyway.

But the definition of "illegal" is changing rapidly.   Leaving your own home is being deemed illegal in some parts of the country.   This is an astounding expansion of government powers, if you think about it - and as I predicted, people are chafing against these restrictions.

I don't truck in conspiracy theories - most of them have so many holes in them, they aren't funny.   But I can see where some people might start to wonder if this whole virus thing isn't just a cover for dramatic expansion of police and government powers.   With talk of endless quarantines and lock-downs going on for months, I can see where people, particularly in rural areas, are thinking this is over-reach.  Particularly when the people doing it, seem to be on some sort of weird power trip.

There are trade-offs in life, and we make them all the time, even when life itself hangs in the balance.  For many people, loss of liberty versus risk of death doesn't seem like a good trade to them.   Patrick Henry once said, "Give me Liberty or Give me Death!" - which is a pretty absolutist position.   He wasn't talking about a 3% chance of death, but the real deal.

I am not saying I agree with all these libertarians and tea partiers and protesters.   On the other hand, it irks me that the news media portrays them as "protesting for an end to social distancing" when in fact, they are protesting more severe measures that seem to be enacted in an arbitrary manner - shutting down businesses for little or no reason.

In Pennsylvania, they decided that liquor sales should be outlawed, and a new prohibition is now in effect.   Some Pennsylvanians drove to West Virginia to buy booze, and West Virginia quickly required that only in-state residents could buy liquor.

I wonder how this would play out in California if they closed all the marijuana stores?   You'd see the place burned to the ground.

Again, it seems governments are being arbitrary and capricious here, with each State enacting regulations based on Facebook hysteria.  Someone complains that such-and-such a business is "unnecessary" (and we can only guess who said the liquor store was - some old biddy) and boom - it is closed.

This does not bode well for the Democrats in the fall.  Just a coincidence, but the States enacting the most arbitrary and restrictive laws in response to the Corona Virus all have Democratic governors.  You do see how this will play out, doncha?   By the fall, when the virus is just a memory, the GOP will harp upon the actions of these governors and say, "Is this what you want?  The government saying you can't have a drink or even leave your home?"

You can argue all day long that such actions saved lives (I doubt they did - social distancing, masks and gloves are more effective than arbitrary bans).    What people will remember is chafing against arbitrary rules.

I guess the point is, the GOP will paint Democrats as power-hungry "big government" proponents, who want to take your money away and give it to more "deserving" people, take your guns away and let felons out of jail - and to vote.  It doesn't matter whether this is just perception, perception sells - and Democratic governors are playing right into the hands of the GOP.

I am not sure that this "contact tracing" isn't just another bad example of this over-reach by government.  Huge programs to interfere with people's civil liberties with a payback that just isn't there.

I think a better approach is to assume everyone is infected and act accordingly.   Because it is probably true - at least half the time.  And in the case of HIV, it turned out to be an effective strategy, and contact tracing, worthless.

Maybe in the early stages of this epidemic, it might have worked.  But now?   Good luck with that!

UPDATE 2021:  The Pandemic seems to be nearly over - infection rates and death rates are lower than they were in March of 2020, when the whole thing got started.  Meanwhile, "Contact Tracing" didn't seem to accomplish diddly, mostly because the budget for it was zilch and it is damn near impossible to trace every person you've been in contact with.  "Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers!" - you go to one grocery store, if infected, and potentially infect the whole place.

Stay at home, social distancing, wearing a mask, and finally a vaccine - that cured the problem.  As with the HIV epidemic, you had to practice "safe sex" and assume everyone was infected.  Contact tracing didn't work then, for a disease much harder to get.  It didn't work now.  Just a waste of money and time and a false hope.