Until recently, I thought the coronavirus was a hoax. I wasn’t convinced of a global pandemic or even the existence of this never-before-seen virus. The numbers and images that were supposed to be frightening seemed insignificant and inconclusive. I thought that everybody was overreacting, and I went so far as to suggest as much on Facebook. I was corrected quickly and firmly by friends and family with firsthand experience with the virus—many of whom I haven’t interacted with in years. My perspective shifted dramatically, and with some further reading about the virus itself, its origins and capabilities, I came away legitimately frightened. I’m incredibly grateful to be in a low-risk group, and to live in rural Vermont where the virus hasn’t quite taken off. I’ve started wearing a mask when entering stores; while I may not feel it makes much of a difference for my health, I understand its importance to others, and that there are better ways to express my thoughts on the current state of the world than by broadcasting the fact that I’m not afraid.
My thoughts on the state of the world are many. They come on me when I wake up in the middle of the night, and often when I first get up in the morning. They lead me to my computer and the internet, and they multiply. They make me feel sad, angry, and confused. The following is an effort to organize my thoughts at this point, at the peak of the virus’ destruction. I should warn you that I am a conspiracy theorist. I’ve rejected the label for years, but I now understand that to believe something other than the mainstream narrative means you’re probably a conspiracy theorist, so yes, I am definitely a conspiracy theorist, and I understand if you want to stop reading now.
The novel coronavirus is an absolute freak. It is by far the largest of its kind, and is uniquely adapted to spread virulently among human populations. It attacks the cells of the lungs, and it is capable of taking a person down with terrifying speed. Besides a physician friend’s first-hand account of treating patients with COVID-19, this talk by a neurobiology professor riding a bike really convinced me of the reality and seriousness of the virus. His talk—and subsequent reading —also led me to believe that this virus developed its unique profile thanks to careful selection and/or engineering in a laboratory. For me, this makes the virus even more frightening. Viruses that make a zoonotic jump from one species to another are not immediately adapted to spread in the new species—their profile is matched most closely to the original host. To make a sustained jump and spread in a new species takes a series of outbreaks and mutations. SARS-COV 2 is a combination of a nasty bat virus and a SARS virus that is already suited to spread among humans. Yikes. The research that led to its creation is called “Gain of Function” research—the practice of developing viruses in a laboratory. GOF research was banned by the National Institute of Health in 2014 because of the risk of a freak virus like this one escaping. That ban was lifted in December of 2017
That is the first part of the mainstream story I don’t believe: that this virus somehow jumped from bats to snakes or pangolins or some other wild animal that was sold at the famous seafood market in Wuhan that was then eaten by some disgusting Chinese person and thus began its spread. The laboratory where the virus was almost certainly developed is in Wuhan, and a number of the first cases of COVID-19 had no connection to the seafood market. Additionally, it’s still not known what animal was the bridge species between bats and humans. At this point, nobody cares. We’ve got our hands full trying to put this thing back in the bottle.
The next part of the mainstream story that I don’t believe is that a complete shutdown of the entire global economy and all human activity is necessary to contain this virus. This is the part I think about most when I wake up in the middle of the night. We are experiencing absolutely unprecedented disruption of life as we know it, and we will be dealing with the consequences for the rest of our lives. It wasn’t my idea to stop all productive human activity, and yet I feel that I’m being asked not only to comply, but to give moral support to the entire idea. I absolutely do not, for two reasons:
1. There is no scientific evidence that extreme social distancing and complete shutdown has any effect on the spread or destruction of a virus.
2. The negative economic and social consequences of extreme social distancing and complete shutdown are so great today and for years in the future as to clearly outweigh the theoretical number of lives saved.
Unfortunately, this stance seems to place me in a neatly-prepared and all-too-familiar segment of society: the ignorant, gun-toting, probably Republican-voting, likely Trump-supporting yokels who don’t listen to science and now want to jeopardize the lives of everybody else to selfishly prove a point. That doesn’t describe me at all!
I’m tired of this divide. The other side, of course, is the side of Science and Liberal Thinking and Democrat-voting—in other words, the good side. I feel like there is no middle ground for me to stand on. What if I don’t like Pepsi or Coke? Can’t I care about the lives lost from this virus and also protest the fascism descending on my country?
To be clear: I think the response to this virus is completely inappropriate and specifically designed to consolidate power and wealth in the hands of the most powerful and wealthy, and to further marginalize and jeopardize the lives of the least powerful and poorest people on our planet. I think that the consequence of this response is and will be a tremendous loss of life and freedom, and a society in which many people are further disconnected, isolated, lonely, depressed, and afraid.
The story goes that as the virus began to spread around the world, governments everywhere scrambled to devise an appropriate response. They looked at projections of how quickly the virus could spread, and how many lives it could claim, and decided, out of an abundance of caution, to steadily shut everything down. Many of those projections were published in a report from the Imperial College. They said that as many as 2.2 million Americans could die if we did nothing, recommended the closure of schools, social distancing, and basically all of the extreme measures we’ve seen rolled out in the past month. As Dr. Johan Giesecke notes, this report was never published in a scientific journal, nor peer-reviewed, and was “very bad”. To me, this report looks like a massive scare tactic—some frightening numbers to broadcast and create enough fear to justify the incredible response. The projections have steadily diminished, and in the United States we’re now zeroing in on a total death count somewhere around 50,000.
Would 50,000 deaths be enough to justify shutting down the entire economy and ordering everybody to stay home until further notice? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Of course, we weren’t given a choice. Nobody asked me! We were simply shown these terrifying projections and expected to sit tight and obey orders until further notice.
I suppose it’s time to address the counterargument you may be raising, (and indeed this is emphasized by Dr. Anthony Fauci himself ): Firstl, how could we have known? Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? And secondly, these massive death tolls very well could have occurred were it not for the aggressive social distancing and complete societal shutdown. (Side note: I don’t trust this Fauci character. The fact that he’s been the health mouthpiece for the White House since Ronald Reagan doesn’t make him any more trustworthy to me.)
To the first point, I direct you to Event 201, a high-level meeting that took place in late October 2019 to plan a global coordinated response to a coronavirus pandemic. The event was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (who incidentally have also granted $79 million to the Imperial College), the World Health Organization, and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (the organization now providing the official numbers that everybody’s referencing). Some of the organizations represented include Marriott International, the United Nations, Henry Schein, Inc. (leading provider of products and services to physicians and hospitals), the Bill & Melinda Gates Global Development Program, McGill University School of Population and Global Health, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, ANZ Bank, Edelman (massive PR firm), Lufthansa Airlines, UPS, the CDC, Johnson & Johnson, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore. They simulated “an outbreak of a novel zoonotic coronavirus transmitted from bats to pigs to people that eventually becomes efficiently transmissible from person to person, leading to a severe pandemic”.
For me, this planning event completely invalidates the argument that governments the world over were scrambling to devise a response and acting out of panic and uncertainty. Instead, they were apparently following protocol that was thoroughly fleshed out just a couple of months prior to the outbreak.
To the second point, I ask what scientific evidence do we have that social distancing and complete government shutdown has had any effect on the trajectory of a virus? In other words, how do we know that things would’ve been much worse? There is no evidence that I’m aware of to support this theory. A bunch of people saying “it would’ve been so much worse!” doesn’t make it so. Maybe these crazy measures had an effect, and maybe they didn’t. There is an example of a country that reacted with more moderate measures: Sweden kept elementary schools, bars, and restaurants open. They limited social gatherings to 50 people or less, and they encouraged people to practice good hygiene and stay home as much as possible. As with all of the numbers, it’s too early to definitively say how well they fared, and virtually impossible to know how differently things would have gone had they done otherwise, but what is clear is that their healthcare system was not overwhelmed, their death toll is not worse than countries with strict shutdowns, and their economy is much, much better off. Also, their citizens were never subjected to heavy, daily doses of fear.
Regardless of whether or not governments the world over could have or should have known better, it’s important to look at the other consequences of this shutdown. The first is the obvious economic toll: by all accounts, we’re headed for at best a serious recession, and at worst a greater depression than 1929. An incredible 22 million people have filed for unemployment in the United States—myself included. That number doesn’t come close to telling the story, however, because those are just the folks who had some sort of job for which they filed taxes, and who have access to the internet and the wherewithal to complete online forms or sit on hold for days on end. What about all of the people who exist outside of the system, who aren’t counted in the numbers of those officially filing for unemployment, or who don’t have internet access or the ability to navigate the claims process? I was one of those number for most of the past decade: I skated by on odd jobs and the occasional sale of a painting. I didn’t file taxes and would have no eligibility for unemployment. How many people are buying art right now? How many people are hiring out odd jobs around their house? I was lucky to have my parents’ house to retreat to—what about all the people who have no safety net?
I’m fortunate to have a wife with a government job that has carried on through the shutdown. It took me three weeks to receive an unemployment check, but I wasn’t at risk of going hungry. What about people with no savings, who were living paycheck to paycheck already? There are lots of folks like that out there, and they’re in trouble.
How about the small businesses that have been forced to close? In our community, two awesome new businesses were just getting going when the pandemic hit. Now they’re shut down, their momentum stopped. Will they recover? Will the good help they found be there for them when the shutdown ends? Will people have money to spend on coffee and beer? Hopefully they will. They at least have their ducks in a row, have filed taxes and have computer-savvy owners who are capable of navigating the complex process of filing for small business assistance. Many, many small businesses are not so well-equipped. Even properly submitted claims are only being funded about 8% of the time right now.
Unemployment has been shown to increase the risk of death from suicide and undetermined causes. These are deaths of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. For many people who are single or who live alone, going to work is their only interaction with other humans. Now these folks are sitting at home, alone in their rooms, watching television for weeks on end. How’s that affecting their mental and emotional health? I have a friend who lost their job thanks to the shutdown and just started taking anti-depressants. This friend is in their 20’s. How many thousands more are like them? Some perhaps starting a lifelong dependency on pharmaceutical drugs to make them feel okay?
What about the fear itself? Chronic fear has been shown to have severe negative health effects. I don’t know about you, but I can feel and smell the fear on some people these days. It is very noticeable, and my guess is that some of them are getting no relief. Particularly elderly folks or unemployed, who have nothing to do but sit about and watch the news. It seems to be easing up a bit, but for a while there we were getting hit pretty hard every morning with a solid dose of fear. What will be the long-term public health effects of all this fear?
I’ve got a wife who lets me hug her whenever I want to—what about all the people who don’t, and are literally no longer allowed to touch anybody? Our society was awkward and isolated enough before the shutdown. People seemed to be getting increasingly socially anxious, depressed, etc—especially in urban and suburban environments. Social media and smartphones seemed to be having weird and troubling effects on young people, who are awkward and insecure enough as it is. How about a prolonged stretch without any physical interaction to break the tension, and nothing but virtual reality to interact in?
What about dates and people meeting people and falling in love? Nobody is going on dates. At best they’re striking up conversations in chat rooms. How many people have fallen in love around the world in the past two months? How many people have felt the electricity of a first kiss? That’s powerful stuff, good strong powerful natural juice for our society, and it has all abruptly ceased for going on two months now. These sort of effects are difficult to quantify, but very real nonetheless.
Are we ever going to be able to even hug each other freely again? Is Dr. Fauci going to get on stage one day and say “Go ahead and hug your neighbor, everybody!”. Probably not. Probably the restrictions will be eased, but I have no doubt this will be done with a very large caveat, that will be something like: the virus could come back at any time, social distancing is still the safest course, etc. etc. And how long until the switch is flipped again? Flu season was awful in 2018—my physician friend said that not a single ICU bed was left in the state where she practices. Are we going to resume social isolation every winter? I already feel incredibly uncomfortable around people, and like reaching out to hug somebody is some kind of a radical political demonstration. Is it going to be up to us to wear buttons that say “I’m okay with hugs”? Or will people be afraid to do that, because again—you could have it and not know it and pass it on to some elderly person who could die. Probably it’s safest to just stay 6 ft. away.
The last consequence of the shutdown I want to touch on is famine. Before the coronavirus struck, at least 20 million people were estimated to be at risk of acute food insecurity. The results of this shutdown are going to make this situation far worse. Here in Northern Vermont, it’s already sort of hard to keep our refrigerator stocked with butter! Imagine what it’s like in the poorest countries in the world. We’re talking about millions and millions of people going hungry, because food supply chains are disrupted or they can’t go out and earn their daily $1.50 to buy food for their family because they’re no longer allowed to work. Where are these numbers being tallied up for us? [Update: UN’s World Food Program estimates 265 million people will face food crisis this year, and that 135 million worldwide lived on the brink of starvation last year]
If you combine the long-term public health impacts of social isolation, economic depression, and food shortages, it’s not hard to come up with a number of deaths that exceeds the perhaps 200,000 that we’ll see worldwide from COVID-19. We may not know the true toll of this global shutdown for years to come—if ever. I’m not capable of producing any accurate projections of secondary deaths resulting from this pandemic, and so I won’t try. I would argue that the Royal Institute wasn’t very capable of accurate projections either, but went ahead anyway.
Speaking of numbers, it’s hard to place much faith in the tallies we’re shown of the thousands dying from Coronavirus—and thus the justification for this prolonged shutdown and continued red alert. First of all, the CDC and Johns Hopkins University show two completely different totals. Secondly, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the CDC issued a directive that instructs doctors to note the cause of death as “COVID-19” with or without a positive test for the virus, and in the case of a positive test, to list “COVID-19” as cause of death regardless of the actual cause of death (e.g. being hit by a bus). You may argue that this is to compensate for the lack of testing, and that there are probably lots of deaths from COVID-19 that weren’t reported. Perhaps, but under the new CARES act, hospitals get a 15% bump in compensation for any COVID-19 patient (see section 4409). Given that many hospitals are hemorrhaging funds and laying off staff left-and-right thanks to almost all non-COVID traffic ceasing, I wonder how many COVID-19 cases are really slipping under the radar of the hospital system?
There are a number of recent studies that suggest that the number of people who have been infected with COVID-19 is up to 80 times higher than the number of confirmed cases, like this one from Stanford University . This makes intuitive sense to me, as the limited available testing has been applied mostly to those showing serious symptoms of COVID-19. There would naturally be many more people who contracted the virus but showed no symptoms and were never tested and never counted as a “confirmed case”. The result would be to adjust the morality rate of COVID-19 infection accordingly—perhaps 80 times over, which would put it more or less on par with seasonal influenza.
One can argue the numbers in both directions. One can argue that the numbers are inflated, or that they’re under-reported. One can argue that the tests produce lots of false negatives, or that they produce lots of false positives. One can argue that the virus is far deadlier than the flu, or that it’s about the same. What’s striking to me is that the arguments supported by the mainstream media are always the same: the deaths are under-reported, the tests produce many false negatives, and the disease is far deadlier than the flu. The opposing arguments are pretty quickly dismissed, if reported at all. Furthermore, there are no mainstream media projections or reports of the secondary effects on public health due to depression, suicide, or malnutrition. Of course, these are likely to develop over time, but to dismiss them would be to willfully ignore part of the picture.
We aren’t living in an objective, science-based society. Our government is not wringing their hands over tough decisions and grappling with what’s really going to be best for the American people. Our media promotes and spreads fear. Alternative perspectives are labelled conspiracy theories and shunned accordingly. We aren’t given the facts and allowed to make up our own minds. We are told to be afraid, to obey, and to report our neighbors who aren’t following orders. These past few weeks are evidence of just how quickly our rights can be revoked—or perhaps of just how ephemeral they’d become—and of how willing people are to fall in line.
The thing I love about Vermont is how much folks respect others’ right to live their life as they please. I remember when I started barefoot running in Oakland, CA, how I got cat-calls from cars and people who wanted to take out some sort of aggression on the weird guy running barefoot. Here in Vermont, diesel-truck-driving gun-toting rednecks have simply given me a wave. They might not ever run barefoot, and they might think it’s foolish, but they don’t really care if I want to do it.
I believe this is the essence of freedom that we’re in danger of losing. The scenario has been created whereby not only are we told to comply with unprecedented restrictions on our freedom, but are also encouraged to police ourselves and our neighbors. Those that don’t comply, or don’t believe the science or the story being used to justify the new restrictions, are marginalized, demonized, ridiculed, and—it seems many people hope—forced to comply or permanently removed from society.
Meanwhile, small businesses, colleges, and hospitals are closing, people’s retirement accounts are going up in smoke, our economy is imploding, and millions may starve. And we’re supposed to just sit tight and wait for a vaccine from Bill Gates, and check in for the latest advice from the World Health Organization, which by the way is now telling us to stop eating butter and to eat more canola oil.
I truly value my freedom to live my life as I please. I am a responsible citizen. I don’t litter, I recycle diligently, and I show up for my neighbors in time of need. If I’m feeling sick, I try to stay home and not mingle with others.
I’m afraid of losing my freedom. I’m afraid that our society is descending into fascism, and that anybody sounding the alarm is being vehemently attacked. I don’t want to have to get a vaccine for a freak virus that was cobbled together in some Chinese laboratory, and I don’t want to be forced to give it to my children. It would be nice to be able to trust completely in the authorities that tell me what to do, but as you can see I don’t and I probably never will. I’m going to have to continue doing my best to understand what’s really going on, and act accordingly. Perhaps I’ll have to move to Sweden, but I’d rather not! I like it here in Vermont. I really like Vermonters and Americans in general. We truly are a special and diverse country.
I’m struggling to conclude this diatribe. My intention was to lay out all of the major pieces that currently comprise my perspective on this pandemic. There is so much out there, and these are some of the things I’ve found most helpful. I’ve gone ahead and drawn a few conclusions, but I urge you to draw your own. Or maybe you should wait a few days and try not to draw any conclusions (a practice I hope to adopt at the onset of the next pandemic).
Whatever you do, I urge you to keep an open mind. Perhaps you’ll find some of this information useful as you navigate this very strange time. I truly hope that we get to hug again soon. Thanks for reading this, and thanks to all of my friends and family who care about me. I care about you too.