Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Invasive Species, Revisited

The daily death rate and infection rates have been going down for nearly a month now.  Funny the news doesn't report that.

I check the daily death rate and infection rates for this virus, as it illustrates how the virus is flaring out.   The media, wanting a sensationalist headline, touts overall numbers of infections and deaths, which of course are always reaching "record highs" like anything else that accumulates over time. The media loves a "stock market at all-time highs!" report, but of course, since the stock market generally goes up over time, more often than not, this can be the headline.  Ditto for "American debts at all-time highs!"

Worse yet, as I noted before, the media doesn't report per capita death rates when comparing one country to another - apparently believing that each country in the world is identical in size and population.  Per capita rates are far more illuminating as to where the real "hot spots" are and aren't.  At first, I thought this error by omission was due to the fact that "journalists" are pretty much clueless dweebs who haven't taken a math class since the 9th grade, but now I realize it is an intentional error - that the news media selects whatever statistic or criteria that makes for the most alarming, and thus most click-worthy, headline.   And in turn, this means we are to blame for clicking on this nonsense.

We create the news these days, by clicking on what we think is interesting

The reality is, of course, that like every epidemic before it from the dawn of time, the virus is flaring out.  It may flare up again, as people congregate this summer - perhaps.   I look at the pictures in the news this weekend and think to myself, "Even without a virus, I would not want to be in that park, on that beach, or in that swimming pool!" as I don't like crowds in general (hence why I live on an island, literally and figuratively). 

Yes, the Memorial Day yahoos came to our island, but a "crowd" here means maybe 50-100 people on a beach that is seven miles long.   And most of the local residents don't go out on the weekends or holidays anyway.   Tuesday is "locals night" at the bars and restaurants, and when most do the pub crawl - or at least before the virus.  So to us, Memorial day was marked not by crowds but by noting the slight increase in traffic on the road, the few idiots who think it is OK to do 50 mph in a 35 zone, and the turkey buzzards who reaped the reward of this when the same idiots run over one of our many, many deer on the island (or raccoon or possum).  Amazing how quickly they can strip a carcass!  Now if they can only do this with tourists.

But getting back to the chart above, the first thing I note is that back in the "good old days" when you hit the pull-down menu to select "Country" the United States of God-Bless-America was top dead center on any list - the way it should be, of course!   We invented the Internet, and the modern computer, and the telephone.   There is a reason we are "Country Code" number uno - USA! USA! USA!   Whoops, I guess we let Canada and the Caribbean in on that deal.

Nowadays, what with political correctness and all, we're down there with "Uzbekistan" and just before "World".    Maybe this is what Trump meant by "Make America Great Again!"   These pull down lists should read 'Merica and Other and leave it at that.   Of course, Other isn't going to go along with that, so maybe as a compromise, we can put the list in reverse alphabetical order like our 3rd grade teacher did, so George Zimmer and Ted Ziff could be first in line for cafeteria (instead of Fred Able and Bob Bell) just once in a while, to be "fair".   Just a thought.

But getting back to the graph above, the death rate today was only 500 people, a number we haven't seen since March 31st.  That's a two-month low.  And the infection rate is also at a similar low and both have been trending down for a month now.  This is good news.  The world infection rate has largely been tracking the same, although today, it went up while the US went down.   What is interesting is that the death rate seems to be dropping faster than the infection rate, so one would think this means medical treatment is getting better.

Of course, there are caveats - and the news media loves to pile these on whenever good news is found. The actual death rate may be under-reported (or conversely, over-reported) as the methodology varies from country to country.   It is not an exact science - they are not doing Covid tests on the blood of the deceased and then filling out forms and checking off boxes.   In some cases, a death is counted as being related to the virus if it seems virus-like.  In others, no testing in being done.  In still others, if the person had the virus but died of other causes it is counted.   And yet in another method, the increase in death rate over statistical averages is attributed to the virus, whether or not there is a proven link between these deaths and the virus.   Statistics are not an exact science!

So while I follow these numbers, I don't try to get any false hopes up or think that the daily variations of up or down a few hundred deaths or a few thousand infections is relevant other than as noise on a signal.   The overall trend does seem downward, doesn't it, though?  Please?

But let's not get crazy here.   In a way, a virus is like an invasive species which I wrote about before.  Life doesn't view itself as invasive or non-invasive, good or evil.  Life just tries to survive and doesn't view that as a negative thing - even if others have to suffer as a result.  As humans, we eat other creatures - even plants - which have to die so we can live.  This morning, Mark made avocado toast again (the avocados are so cheap these days!) and I joked that it was a vegetarian meal and perhaps even vegan - if you don't count all the yeast that was murdered when we made the bread.

Life takes life - or lives parasitically off other life. We have a plethora of Cardinals on our feeders right now - broods of immature ones being guided by their parents as to how to alight to the feeders.  Worst pilots ever!  Cardinals must have invented the phrase, "Any landing you walk away from is a good one!"

We also have cowbirds.  Cowbirds are not as colorful and they are a bit menacing.  They lay their eggs in other birds' nests and then let those other birds incubate, hatch, feed, and raise their young. Sort of like how some humans have children.  Ornithologists worry that declines in other bird species are a result of this "nest parasitism".   But of course, if the numbers of other birds declines far enough, the cowbirds will have no place to drop their eggs - so the problem corrects itself.  Any parasite has to be smart enough not to kill off its host, as to do so is suicide.

A virus is, in a way, like an invasive species, although whether a virus qualifies as "life" is an interesting question.   They are not thinking beings of course, but from the virus' point of view - if it could have one - all it is doing is trying to survive.   If it kills off enough of its host, then it, too, will die out.   And if you make yourself too visible to your hosts - by killing off even a substantial number of them, or making them ill, then your hosts will take steps to stop your spread or stamp you out.  So, if you want to be a virus, you don't want to be like HIV, but more like the common cold or herpes - widespread, but not too deadly, annoying, but not so annoying your hosts take action to stop you.  The Corona Virus tipped its ugly hand by being too overt.

So what is causing this decrease in deaths and new infections?  And will this continue?   The answer to the second question is "no" as I think we will see the "infection rate" rise as testing becomes more commonplace.  Here on our island they are now offering free drive-through testing at the convention center. This will no doubt highlight some cases that were heretofore undiagnosed, thus raising the "infection rate" statistic, even as the actual infection rate hasn't changed. That and, well, these weekend warrior yahoos out there - thinking that "the crises is over" and instead of responsibly reopening the country, doing it in the most irresponsible way possible - and trying to shame anyone who takes even the slightest precaution.  Paging Charles Darwin!

But like keeping pythons out of the Everglades or snakefish out of streams in Maryland, it will be an uphill battle to eradicate this virus entirely, as the folks in China are finding out.  Even after a severe lockdown there cut the infection and death rates (again, uncertain reporting, this time with a politcal angle) once the country is reopened, new infections are seen - as the data shows.

So the lockdown has been somewhat effective, but might not be a long-term solution.  Eventually, like the snakefish or the pythons or the "invasive trees" the virus will find new paths, particularly as the infection rate slows and people want to "get back to normal."   Either we discover a vaccine, or develop this "herd immunity" assuming that if you get the virus and develop antibodies, you are immune.   Let's hope that is the case - it wasn't with HIV.

But I don't think this is the end of humanity quite yet.  Every plague and epidemic in history has followed the same pattern - flaring up suddenly, then fading out, only to flare up again, months or years later (hence, it is easy to make a prescient prediction of a plague or virus and sound like you are psychic).   But as we are seeing, there is a statistical distribution with regard to how the virus affects people. And again, we will know a year from now, a decade from now, more than we do today, and we know more today than we did yesterday or a month ago.

It seems that there are some who are severely affected by this virus - and a minority who die from it.  A vast majority - so far - who get it, don't even know they have it or had it.  Some have mild symptoms others have more severe ones.  Age and pre-existing conditions affect the death rate.   But the bottom line is that it appears a vast majority of humans have some sort of resistance or immunity to this virus, or let's hope that is the case and that the worst case scenario is that while a lot of people would die - millions in the US alone, mostly elderly - life will go on and our society will continue to function.

But let's hope it doesn't come to that.  Others have other opinions.  I am hearing from some folks who say this is the end of humanity as we know it.  That this virus will infect and re-infect everybody until everyone is dead, and there is no immunity to the virus once you have it.  So if you survive the virus (only a 99% chance, if you are under age 60!) you will get it again and again until you are dead, dead, dead, buster, so watch out!  Stop being so optimistic! You're just rooting for the virus!

I am not sure what the point of that thinking is - or whether it is supported by any sort of "science." My only observation is that if this re-infection scenario was the case, we would have seen thousands or hundreds of thousands of cases where people were re-infected by the virus, as millions of people have been infected, worldwide, and have survived the virus and are no longer infected, but have the antibodies.  Maybe such cases exist, and we haven't seen them yet.  But with each passing day, it seems less and less likely.

Again, I would hope that isn't the case - that there is no immunity to this virus - as it would eventually infect everyone and we would all die, unless a vaccine was developed.  But aren't vaccines designed to cause your body to develop antibodies?  If there is no natural immunity to this virus, I am not sure how you can create an artificial one.

But again, I suspect that it will not come to that.   In any population distribution, there are some sort of survival rates.  Yes, a comet or asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs.  Yet dinosaurs exist today - and not just in Jurassic Park.  They visit my bird feeder and they swim - as alligators - in our ponds.   It is just that not all the dinosaurs survived.  And meanwhile, those oddball furry mammals discovered they could prosper in this cold, new world.  This virus, of course, is hardly on the level of a comet or asteroid - it seems poised to let most of us survive.

We'll just have to wait and see what happens.  Myself, I guess I am an optimist - but then again, it is a lot easier to be an optimist when you don't watch television, particularly Fox News.   YouTube has been pushing "CoVid Reports" including snippets from "the evening news" and we had to laugh out loud at how useless and uninformative it was.  Some chesty blond starts off with some vague and unsupported alarming statements, who then cuts to a "reporter in the field" who is wearing an N-95 mask, even though he is at least a dozen yards away from any other living person (or dead one, for that matter).  The only thing we took away from it was a sense of dread

People say to me, "how can you stay informed, if you don't watch the news!"   And I reply to them, "How do you stay informed watching it?"   22-minutes of repetitive snippets isn't telling you much of anything, particularly when so much of it is biased and slanted left or rightward depending on which channel you watch.   I stay informed by reading my blog.  Genius stuff, there!

Lesson learned - never open Pandora's box of depression, a.k.a., the television.   The "depression box" I have called it, because television watchers are depressed people, and depressed people make excellent consumers.  The networks just have to figure out how to get you to lease a spanking-new SUV during the pandemic, or they are going to lose ad revenue.  What's the point of advertising on television if television isn't going to groom a generation of depressed customers for you?  Let's face it, these syrupy-sweet "we're all in this together" ads can only go on for so long.

Meanwhile, good news, such as it is, is ignored by the media, for the most part.  We'll see what happens in the next few weeks.  Eventually, if the death rate drops far enough, the media will have to notice - and of course, people will use this as an excuse for unwarranted euphoria and jump into a swimming pool together in the Ozarks.

Oh, well.  Protect yourself, do what you can, and hope Darwin takes out the idiots.   It could improve the breed.   It was either this, or another World War.  Mankind needs periodic pruning.