Thursday, November 26, 2020

Are the Wignats OK?

“Finkelthink”, a cornerstone of the TRS case against Trump as a "fake nationalist" politician, appears to be lightly laundered Soros propaganda. 

In early 2019, a leading light of the American wignat scene, The Right Stuff podcast network, turned decisively against Donald Trump. They declared their disillusionment on 16 March in episode 198 of Fash the Nation, their political analysis program. This was at the very beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, as Democratic politicians were announcing their primary candidacies. 

A year later, TRS fielded their thesis of Finkelthink, according to which Trump is a "fake nationalist" politician, cooked up by establishment Republican operators in the tradition of strategist Arthur J. Finkelstein. They first outlined the idea, again on Fash the Nation, on 9 May 2020. Since then, Finkelthink has become a cornerstone of The Right Stuff's case against Trump, a doctrine invoked across the platform to portray the president as a crypto-establishment Republican, whose outsider nationalism is a facade engineered by Jewish campaign consultants.

Whatever you think about Trump’s presidency, the origins of the Finkelthink thesis are very clear. It is nothing but lightly retooled Soros propaganda from a journalist now associated with the World Economic Forum, who spent much of the Trump presidency reporting on matters adjacent to Russian election interference. 

To get a handle on the origins of Finkelthink, we turn to Dissident Mag, which is Fash The Nation's online news magazine. It has seven sections, one of them devoted exclusively to Finkelthink – a testament to how central the concept has become to the FTN/TRS political program. Among the earlier items posted in the Finkelthink file is a long article from 5 August 2020, which presents itself as a primer on the concept. 

As a set of ideas or a theory of modern politics, Finkelthink is remarkably ill-defined. Sometimes the TRS guys themselves seem to be uncertain of the extent of the Finklethink thesis, or its precise tenets. The written Finkelthink manifesto on Dissident Mag is likewise muddled. It spends far more words on the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán than it does on Trump, then turns towards Israeli politics, to discuss how the same American consultants who helped Orbán also worked with Netanyahu. Finally it concludes with a denunciation of "Fake Nationalism" in Europe and America that appears to disavow current nationalist politicians almost entirely. 

All of this is very odd.

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Google shows that "Finkel-Think" was a term of deep obscurity until recently. Across the entire internet, a only a handful of pre-2019 sites know the word. Time Magazine believes it was coined by Bob Dole's advisers, to characterise the very specific tactic of smearing Democratic political opponents as "liberals". That's what they claim in a 1996 article, which is also the earliest hit for "Finkel-Think" that Google knows about. Then there's a Huffington Post piece from 2006, where we read again that "Finkel-Think" amounts to "brand[ing] somebody as a liberal," but that it is also a strategy for avoiding campaign spending limits.

None of that has any relationship to the TRS thesis of Finkelthink as "fake nationalism." The next hit, though, gets us closer. It's a 2014 article by the left-liberal Canadian columnist Michael Harris, up in arms about political attacks the Conservative prime minister was mounting against an up-and-coming Justin Trudeau. 

Harris held these tactics to represent an unhealthy American influence on the Canadian political scene. He put them down to Finkelstein, a "merchant of venom" who had advised "three U.S. Republican presidents, countless senators and other right-wing world leaders like Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu." He explained further:

“Finkel-think” is an approach to new-age techno-politics based on three principles: 60 per cent of people don’t care about the news; perception, not content, is what matters in our dumbed-down age; and the right 15-second attack ad can separate a rival’s head from his shoulders in a heartbeat.

Before Finkelstein, the word “liberal” was a descriptor with many positive connotations, including tolerance and even enlightenment. After him, “liberal” became the ultimate political pejorative. It was used to brand and dismiss progressives as left-wing loons with dubious values and a bad habit of raising taxes and spending the numbers off the credit card. 

Here we see some important innovations: "Finkel-Think" is suddenly more than just calling leftist politicians liberals. It is a specific brand of negative right-wing politics aimed at low-information voters, and associated with the US, Israel, and Netanyahu. Harper, Harris complains, was little more than "an American in a parka". 

This new 2014 notion of "Finkel-Think", it is safe to say, is a way for leftist commentators outside the US to denounce the malign, American (and implicitly Jewish) tactics adopted by their conservative opponents. 

We are suddenly a lot closer to Finklethink as Dissident Mag knows it. But we are not all the way there. The last step is a think-piece by a Swiss reporter named Hannes Grassegger. It first appeared on 12 January 2019 in Das Magazin, a publication of the Swiss daily newspaper Tages Anzeiger. Eight days later, Buzzfeed put up an English version: The Unbelievable Story of the Plot Against George Soros

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Almost all the Google hits you find now for "Finkel-Think" go back to Grassegger. It is undoubtedly the Buzzfeed article that Fash The Nation used for their Dissident Mag write-up, and that underpins the TRS thesis of Finkelthink more generally.

As its title suggests, Grassegger's article is not primarily about Trump, and it is not about "fake nationalism" either. Instead, it's about Hungarian nationalist smears on George Soros. 

Have a taste:

The demonization of Soros is one of the defining features of contemporary global politics, and it is, with a couple of exceptions, a pack of lies. Soros is indeed Jewish. He was an aggressive currency trader. He has backed Democrats in the US and Karl Popper’s notion of an “open society” in the former communist bloc. But the many wild and proliferating theories, which include the suggestion that he helped bring down the Soviet Union in order to clear a path to Europe for Africans and Arabs, are so crazy as to be laughable — if they weren’t so virulent.

"Soros and his aides," we go on to read, "have spent a long time wondering: Where did all this come from?" 

Grassegger's reporting is built around an interview with George Birnbaum, an American political consultant with ties to Netanyahu. Birnbaum told Grassegger all kinds of remarkable things about the role that Finkelstein's ideas played in Viktor Orbán's political campaigns. For almost all of this we only have Birnbaum's word, because according to Birnbaum, he and Finkelstein did their work "in secret". 

Precisely what this work amounted to is also a secret:

Birnbaum was ... unforthcoming about the exact details of the work they did for Orbán. He didn’t want to discuss whether they had drafted slogans or just simple concepts, nor would he say how much control they had over the campaign itself.

Despite all of this secrecy, Birnbaum can say that he and Finkelstein advised Orbán's in the ways of Finkel-Think and in this way steered him to victory. He holds that they cast Soros as a kind of globalist arch-nemesis of Hungary, whom Orbán could denounce at will. It was this cynical demonisation of Soros that, according to Birnbaum, has given rise to all the anti-Soros tropes in nationalist right-wing politics today. Grassegger tries very hard to draw Trump into this picture, but he doesn't have much. At most he can compare Trump to Orbán and list Trump's connections to some Finkelstein associates. 

The article wraps up with this scene:

Birnbaum went to the Trump hotel in DC, where a friend, Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was presenting his new book, Trump’s Enemies. Kellyanne Conway dropped by. Caviar was being sold, $100 per ounce. Birnbaum chatted with the other guests and ordered a Moscow mule.

Had he changed his mind about the Soros campaign? Any regrets?

“Anti-Semitism is something eternal, indelible,” said Birnbaum. “Our campaign did not make anyone anti-Semitic who wasn’t before. Maybe we were just drawing a new target, not more. I would do it again.”

Why was Birnbaum feeding all this stuff to Grassegger, is one question you should be asking at this point. He's claiming to be a secret Orbán insider, giving a Soros-adjacent journalist material that he must know will be used against Orbán, a former client. Who was Birnbaum working for when he gave this interview, is another question it might be time to think about. 

[Update 27 Nov. 2020: There's in fact a lot more to this angle than I thought. Maybe I'll write a second post on Birnbaum's strange career and how elements of the narrative he gave Grassegger in this article emerged slowly, first in Hungarian and Israeli outlets, after Finkelstein's death in 2017.] 

Whatever the answers, the upshot is clear: Soros has been unjustly defamed by a clique of unscrupulous Jewish Republican operatives, and Trump's campaign has depended upon the same cynical anti-Semitic strategies. 

Although it was republished in Buzzfeed, the article is obviously written for a European audience: It targets Orbán, one of the highest profile nationalist politicians on this side of the pond; and it plays up the Israeli connections of his campaign advisers, a particularly unpalatable angle for many centre and left-leaning Europeans. Both this tactic and its conception of "Finkel-Think" directly parallel the 2014 Canadian take of Michael Harris. It seems highly probable that Grassegger modelled his work directly on Harris's opinion piece, filling out its basic frame with the material Birnbaum fed him. The structure of both articles is very close. Both present Finkel-Think as an unhealthy foreign American influence, with Jewish overtones and Israeli associations, steering conservative politics closer to home. Grassegger's only innovation is to associate this new style of Finkel-Think with a strategic, nativist anti-Semitism appeals. 

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The Dissident Mag article on Finkelthink is not just modelled on Grassegger. It's ripped from him, down to specific citations and photos. The disjointedness in Dissident Mag arises from their blunt attempt to impose a new thesis on Grassegger's original frame, namely that Trump and Orbán and all the others are fake nationalists. Because Grassegger had only talked about purported nationalist exploitation of anti-Semitism (and Grassegger's probable 2014 model had only complained about negative conservative politicking), the FTN guys have very little to work with here. That's why there's almost nothing in their article that supports the case for Trump's fake nationalism at all. It's all about campaign strategies. It is moreover hard to see what relevance cynical Finkelstein-inspired anti-Semitism could have for American Trump voters. Trump did not posture even implicitly as an anti-Jewish candidate.

What's curious, though, is the work Dissident Mag makes of Grassegger/Birnbaum defense of Soros. What started out as the thesis that the Hungarian investor had been targeted by Orbán's anti-Semitic smears becomes, in Dissident Mag, the notion that Birnbaum and Finkelstein "pulled the most Jewish trick of all" by co-opting anti-Semitism to get Orbán elected. On the one hand, it is easy to see why the idea of anti-Semitic messaging orchestrated by Jewish consultants might get the FTN guys thinking about the integrity of their own nationalist candidates. On the other hand, this is a really awkward argument. It is the sort of thing that happens when an openly anti-Jewish podcast lifts its analysis from globalist journalism purporting to pull back the curtain Hungarian anti-Semitism. 

To summarise: The TRS Finkelthink thesis is recycled Soros propaganda, crudely laundered for a wignat audience. Originally, "Finkel-Think" just meant tired boomer-tier attacks on Democrats as "tax and spend liberals." Outside the US, perhaps first in Canada, it came to denote malign American Jewish political tactics adopted by domestic conservative politicians. Finally, in Grassegger's formulation, Finkelthink becomes the (possibly anti-Semitic) smearing of a leftist (globalist) opponent by nationalist political campaigns interested in stirring up nativist sentiment. 

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Hannes Grassegger is a curious guy. He is a member of the Soros-adjacent World Economic Forum – yes, the Great Reset guys – where we read that he is "an investigative tech-journalist" who 
... works on threats posed by disinformation, microtargeting and digital campaigning. An economist by training ... Hannes writes about how networked technology changes our economy and the way we live. He has covered targeting technologies, information warfare, blockchain, the emergence of anti-tech movements and the governance of social media companies like Facebook or TikTok.

Emphasis mine. There's certainly some kind of information warfare going on here. Grassegger's earlier work addressed the undue influence of social media on elections and Russian manipulation, particularly in reference to Trump's 2016 victory. He claims credit for setting off the Cambridge Analytica fracas, and he co-authored an article about Russian election interference in The New Republic in 2017. He appears to have been particularly interested in Facebook, writing for ProPublica about how their rules "Protect White Men from Hate Speech But Not Black Children", and about the curious role their get-out-the-vote mechanisms played in the 2017 parliamentary elections in Iceland.

On his Twitter account, Grassegger oddly declares himself a "Friend of the deplorables". 


He still promotes his Finkelthink thesis. In fact he did so just yesterday, in the midst of a long thread on a guy named Marian Schreier. Schreier is running to be mayor of Stuttgart as a kind of liberal centrist, and Grassegger hopes he'll upset the CDU candidate. Apparently some people have claimed Schreier's campaign is funded by globalist interests from Switzerland. 

A conspiracy theory, Grassegger scoffs:

There is indeed a political faction heavily involved in fielding what might be called "fake" candidates, but they're not nationalists. They mostly present themselves as left-liberals and advocate for things like mass migration and globalist economic schemes. Grassegger makes no secret of being a mouthpiece for them.

Finkelthink is at root an anti-nationalist thesis, and the TRS guys have used it to argue against the authenticity of basically all prominent nationalist politicians. "It’s what Trump’s entire 2016 campaign was predicated on," they write. "And Bolsonaro’s. And dozens of politicians across Europe. This is the essence of Fake Nationalism." 

What unites all of these figures is not Finkelthink, but the fact that they are bitterly opposed by globalist organisations like the World Economic Forum. As far as I know, George Soros remains a topic of opprobrium at The Right Stuff. They have bought very hard into the propaganda meme designed to portray him as the good guy, but their anti-Semitic priors have prevented them from swallowing the whole argument. Instead, they've bought it halfway, and wound up denouncing right-wing enemies of globalism (however imperfect) as enemies of nationalism, or as "fake nationalists." 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

COVID and ICU Capacity in Germany: Various Things that Make No Sense

From the beginning, we have been told the same thing over and over: 

Covid is especially dangerous because of the enormous stress it places upon hospital systems. A very high percentage of COVID patients require hospitalisation, particularly in intensive care units. This is one of the major reasons – perhaps the primary reason – that onerous containment measures are necessary. Otherwise our healthcare resources will be entirely overwhelmed.

Germany has now reach the apex of what is purported to be a second pandemic wave. Reports of respiratory illness are way down even though the respiratory disease COVID is supposed to be raging everywhere. Mortality for 2020 so far in Germany appears to be more or less flat, when compared to prior years. 

Where, then, is the pandemic to be found? Well, we are told all the time, it is to be found in the increasing numbers of COVID hospitalisations, and the rising number of COVID patients in intensive care.

Here is a graph of the COVID patients in the ICU. As of yesterday, there are 3,742 of them:

While data for hospitalisations isn't as centralised in Germany, indications are that they, too, are going up. A company called Helios runs a lot of hospitals and clinics in Germany, and they've published their own data:


Red marks COVID ICU patients, purple marks ordinary COVID hospitalisations. So it's clear, right? COVID patients are filling hospitals and intensive care units, exactly like we feared they would, even though overall mortality is hardly up and symptoms of respiratory illness are way down. 

The the thing is, though, that nothing is filling up at all. 

Helios also provides data on total hospital occupancy, and it's completely flat:

Dark green is ordinary hospitalisations, light green is ICU. Oh, and that dotted line running above the whole thing? That's where the numbers were at last year. Between two and four thousand fewer people are in hospital right now in German Helios hospitals, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, than were in hospital last year at this time. So, a) more and more people in Helios hospitals have COVID, while b) total occupancy remains flat and beneath that of last year.

This phenomenon recurs in the ICU data. Here we have much better numbers for all of Germany, compiled by the DIVI-Intensivregister. Here's the latest data:


Since October, COVID patients have gone from a little under 1% to about 17% of all ICU patients in Germany, while ICU total occupancy has remained the same, fluctuating only a few percentage points either way. This oddity is addressed by the guys running the Intensivregister in their FAQ. There we find the familiar excuse, which is that hospitals have adopted emergency readiness procedures, delaying elective procedures to keep ICU beds available for COVID patients. But, they don't commit themselves to this explanation; and others speculate that things like car accidents and so forth are way down as a result of lockdowns and other measures.

There is obviously some plasticity in the system. If there is so much room for manoeuvre that it can absorb almost 4,000 extra patients with no change in overall occupancy, there would seem to be so much plasticity that that politicians and media personalities should stop talking about raw occupancy numbers, as they would not seem to mean very much. 

However that may be, it is remarkably hard to find specific reporting on what procedures have been delayed, and where, and how these decisions were implemented. Note that overall ICU occupancy has hardly varied at all, so you would have to posit that accidents and elective procedures were scaled back at precisely the rate that COVID patients scaled up. 

As for accidents and other mishaps being less of a factor in our new, safer, locked down world: Well, we have excess mortality data through 25 October. It looks like this:

The red line is 2020. All those accidents and illnesses that aren't happening because of lockdown, are mysteriously causing the same number of deaths as before, while causing fewer ICU hospitalisations than before.  

Now, the DIVI-Intensivregister people release daily situation reports on ICU capacity and COVID patients. You'd think these reports would have to confront to detail, in one way or another, the phenomenon that COVID patients are becoming more and more common in the ICU, while non-COVID patients are becoming less and less common at precisely the same rate, such that the overall numbers remain steady.

Interestingly, that is not at all the picture they provide. Instead, they give you a constantly updated graph that shows COVID ICU patients rising (the orange line), and available beds declining (the dirty yellow line): 

At least to casual readers of this report, it looks as if COVID patients are eating up more and more German ICU capacity. COVID goes up, capacity goes down. But how can that be? We've seen the overall occupancy numbers have been more or less flat since August. 

The reason, if you dig a little deeper, is that a lot of available beds are disappearing. This has been happening since Monday, 19 October. Here's another graph. The bottom deep blue is occupied ICU beds, the light blue is unoccupied beds, and the greenish colour is the number of emergency beds that can be readied in a week. The latter two began to decline since 19 October, precisely as hysteria about the second wave entered high gear in Germany.
The DIVI-Intensivregister people address this problem in their FAQ too! They have a special bolded section about it. They're not really sure what's happening, it's clear, but they throw out some possibilities. Perhaps the problem is that medical personnel are getting sick and this is driving capacity down. Or, it could be that it's disproportionately difficult to care for COVID ICU patients, so they drain capacity more than other patients.

I can't address the plausibility of the first excuse, but the second seems flatly unlikely. The decline in free beds began fairly exactly on 19 October. At that point, there were about as many COVID patients in German ICUs as there had been at the end of May. Although the nature of our data has changed somewhat since August, no similar effect is visible in May. 

What is going on? Why are ICU beds disappearing?

The DIVI-Intensivregister data can be broken down by state. When we do that, we see that certain states have experienced no decline in capacity at all. This is the case with Thüringen:

It is also the case with Bremen:
And it is the case with Berlin:

Berlin, which has also reported a very high incidence of corona infections, has indeed seen ICU occupancy increase since the start of October, but not by nearly enough to account for all the COVID ICU patients reported there. Interestingly, empty beds in Berlin have also increased slightly since the end of October. In Berlin, we see hospitals without much reserve capacity, working to make new beds available as demand increases.

This is a reasonable picture, in fact it's what we'd expect. So of course we don't see it anywhere else.

In six other federal states, we see a steady decline, beginning generally on 19 October. These are Hessen, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Niedersachsen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Rheinland-Pfalz and Sachsen. In each case, the emergency reserve declines in tandem with free beds. 

Here's what Nordrhein-Westfallen looks like, to give you an idea. The red line is 19 October:
Here's Mecklenburg-Vorpommern:

There had been previous sudden reductions in capacity, but on 19 October the gradual, day-by-day decline began. 

Niedersachsen presents its own curiosities:

Here we see that, on 19 October, a long-standing draw-down of emergency reserve capacity was finally extended to real ICU capacity as well. 

Now look at Bayern. It involves many more beds. We see that the decline there began much earlier, in September; and that what happened after 19 October – actually closer to 1 November – is that a lot of emergency reserve was dialed back:

Four other states have even more bizarre behaviour after 19 Oct. 

Look at Bayern's neighbour Baden-Württemberg, for example:

Here we see free beds are scaled back very deliberately, in linear fashion, bringing total capacity to a round number (about 3000). A similar scale-back had happened almost a month previous, in the middle of September. Emergency reserve is also brought down to about 1500 beds. These look like centralised, administrative decisions, and if some public health authority in Baden-Württemberg had stated newer, reduced capacity goals, and hopsitals gradually complied.

Now look at Brandenburg:
In the days right after 19 October, free beds jump way up. Then after about a week they're brought down again and decline thereafter. One is tempted to speculate, that people in Brandenburg responded to second-wave hysteria by initially increasing capacity, then reversing their decision and drawing it down like most everyplace else. Meanwhile, ICU occupancy in Brandenburg fell slightly as well, and remains down from a late September, early October high.

Saarland, meanwhile, sees capacity take a nose-dive over the course of about a week. 

In Sachsen-Anhalt something similar happens, but as free beds decline, the emergency reserve is increased for a while. Again, remember the pervasive second-wave anxiety in the middle of October. It's like Sachsen-Anhalt responded to some directive or other, to reduce ICU capacity, but hedged their bets by increasing their reserve. 

This leaves only two federal states, which indeed see a decline, but at some point after 19 October. Here is the city of Hamburg. You can see that a very deliberate reduction in IC capacity only occurs, after some mild declines, in the first week of November:

Emergency reserve does not decline nearly as much. Here again, it looks like ICU capacity is being ramped down and reclassified. In Schleswig-Holstein, just to the north of Hamburg, we see precisely the same thing happening, much more dramatically:
All those beds that disappear after the start of November are retained as potential emergency capacity. 

Throughout, we find clear indications that this decline in available ICU beds is largely about resources being allocated elsewhere. Increased capacity, established to meet the challenges of the first wave, went largely unused then as well. What we are seeing here, is clinics realising the crush of ICU patients will never happen, and drawing down their capacity still further.

Anytime German politicians or public health authorities pronounce on the grave danger that coronavirus poses to our healthcare system, it is worth remembering that people allocating medical resources themselves do not behave like they believe this.

It is also curious to observe that this drawdown was implemented precisely on Monday, 19 October. This was when the press and politicians were talking about nothing so much as the grave danger posed by a second coronavirus wave. Did it become politically important, or administratively important, for some hospital administrators in the second half of October to report reduced intensive care capacity? 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Dear Corona Joggers

The gyms are closed, and your fitness routine now consists of some half-hearted calisthenics on your balcony and running loops in the park. It's great to see you guys out there. It can be hard to scrape together the motivation to put in those dark kilometres before sunrise, and it's even harder when you're the only one doing it. While I'm far from a professional, I've been a high-volume runner for years. A lot of you will have a vastly better experience – you'll run faster and farther and feel better doing it – if you just fix a few things.

Clothing. Most of you are wearing way too much. If it's not raining and it's above 10°C/ 50°F, shorts and a t-shirt are all you need. Below 10° C, add clothes reluctantly. Rain changes this calculus, but the rule is always this: In cool weather, you should be wearing little enough that you feel uncomfortable when you first go outside, and for the first 400 metres or so of your run.

Your Phone. It's just not a great idea to hold your phone and run at the same time. Most of the people I see doing this have adopted a weird loping form that must be completely exhausting. Better, but not optimal, is strapping the phone to your arm. You move your arms constantly, and the added weight will be a nagging disadvantage even if you don't realise that's why you're tiring out. The best place to carry stuff is around your waist. Get one of those flip-belt things and put your phone in there.

Your Keys. These shouldn't be jingling, because exhaustion is as much psychological as it is physical, and again even if you don't notice it, I promise you that constant clink is boring its way into your brain and eating up your endurance. Fix that. 

Water. Hydration is overemphasised. Even at the height of summer you should be able to do a reasonably brisk 10-15 km without drinking anything. Yeah, you'll be thirsty afterwards, it's just not a big deal. In the winter you can run 30 km without a single sip. Unless you're running trails in the woods or through the mountains, you shouldn't be carrying fluids around with you. Stash a bottle somewhere if you need it, and loop back to it every now and again.

Music and Caffeine. Yes (with obvious caveats about headphones if you're running on roads with cars). Anything that stimulates your brain will make you faster and fitter. 

Shoes. Way too much has been written about this so let's write some more. The minimalist shoe craze of the past decade was largely about the fantasies of hippie runners and it was always stupid. We're self-domesticated land apes with feet weakened from generations of walking around shod, and we run mostly on artificially hardened surfaces. Most of us need something under our feet. That said, a lot of you seem to have sub-optimal stuff under your feet. Cyclists pay thousands of Euros for wheels that are just a few grams lighter, because excess rotational weight makes every pedal stroke harder. Shoes are the same, basically. You want comfortable shoes, sure, but you also want light shoes. Those gym sneakers you've repurposed for your corona jogs are a much bigger drag than you think they are. Also too, running shoes with a lot of features – foam of twelve different densities, weird gel pockets, whatever – are also going to slow you down. You want to get the lightest shoes you feel comfortable running in. For longer distances you'll probably need a bit more shoe, for shorter distances much less, and so if you get really into running you'll probably have three or four different pairs in your collection. 

While we're on this topic, when you go to the running shoe store, they're probably going to analyse your gait and try to sell you specialised shoes that fix purported problems in your form. Be really skeptical of this. Not only are these shoes heavier, but, as a rule of thumb, the fewer things your shoe claims to be doing, the better. I'd be wary, above all, of motion-control or stability shoes built to address overpronation. Yes, some runners pronate so much with every step it is almost painful to watch. No, it's not clear to what degree and for whom this is a problem, nor is it obvious that shoes counteract this motion very much at all. My own experiments (with RunScribe sensors) suggest even extremely overbuilt motion-control shoes have a surprisingly marginal effect. I have myself been diagnosed as an overpronator by many a shoe store, and when I started out I did almost all my running in heavy stability shoes. When I finally abandoned them nothing happened, except that running got more comfortable.

Once you get an idea about the kind of running shoes you like, you can save a lot of money by shopping for last year's models on Amazon or Ebay. 

Over-striding. A lot of you are obviously over-striding. That is, you're landing too hard on your foremost heel, braking your forward progress, and losing momentum with every foot-strike. Contrary to some theories, heel-striking (the form of most casual joggers) is fine, but over-striding is bad. If the heels of your shoes are accumulating weird wear patterns, you're probably over-striding. To fix it, you want to increase your stride rate, by taking smaller yet more frequent strides. It's the direct equivalent of shifting down a few gears on a bicycle. A magical number thrown around, without much empirical support, is that a stride rate of 180 steps per minute is optimal. Shoot for it anyway. Load up a 90 beat-per-minute playlist on Spotify, and do a few runs where you strive to take two steps for every downbeat. After a few runs like that, the higher stride rate will become more ingrained and you can stop monitoring it. 

Injuries. Muscle soreness that disappears over the first few km of a run is natural stiffness and nothing to worry about. Anything that gets worse as you run is an injury and you need to stop running or you'll make it worse. In general the less body fat you carry, and the more experience you have, the less injuries are going to be a problem for you. Also, you'll find that injuries are almost always associated with changes in routine. Most runners get injured in the course of increasing their training volume or intensity; if you generally run the same distance at the same intensity every week, after a while you'll stop having problems. While you need to let injuries heal, so you can get back to running, you also shouldn't worry about them too much or allow injury avoidance to needlessly limit your workout routine. A lot of new runners suffer a series of minor niggling injuries at the beginning, get discouraged, and decide running isn't for them. In almost every case that's not true. You just need to give your body time to harden up. The chances that you've burned through all your knee cartilage or permanently destroyed your ankle – assuming you're not obese or ancient – are very low indeed. 

Nutrition and weight-loss. It's common to overestimate the impact that running will have on your body composition and overall fitness. Running feels strenuous, and it demands more of your aerobic capacity than almost anything else save cross-country skiing, but you're probably not going to see serious fat loss from running alone, unless you're in the 65-80km (40-50mi) per week range. A lot has also been written about high-carbohydrate endurance diets. You can experiment, but my experience is that an ordinary healthy diet and without any special attention to carbs is generally fine for everything under 100km (60 mi)/week. As for gels or other mid-run nutrition: If you're eating healthy food, not dieting to cut weight, and have a more or less normal BMI, your muscle glycogen alone will get you through 20km/13 miles of uncomfortably intense running. It follows that most people don't need to be sucking gels for runs shorter than this, which is good, because gels are disgusting awful. Have a banana before you go out and a bowl of rice when you get back.  

HOW DO I GET FASTER OMG I AM SO SLOW. Running slow most of the time is a great way to build baseline fitness. Once you're more or less fit, you should shoot for comfortable, conversational paces at least 80% of the time. You get faster, generally, a) by running more and b) by shedding excess body fat and getting lighter. Specific speed or tempo workouts are mainly useful for squeezing a bit more fitness out of the volume you're already running. If you're just starting out, don't worry about intervals and the rest of it. You'll see enormous gains from simple, slow runs and there's no reason to push it. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Covid as a Social Construct: Part V

 Some Deconstruction

Covid, our socially constructed virus-disease, is everywhere, but invisible (Part I), a novel and extra-natural disease (Part II) of universal import (Part III), that is spread to the vulnerable elderly, via the healthy activities of youth (Part IV). Among these elements of Covid social mythology, only novelty is well-grounded in the reality of Sars2. This is indeed a new virus. It spreads with the ease of an invasive species, out-competing native viral flora. It has almost totally eliminated influenza. That does not mean that Sars2 is everywhere, though, or that its presence is hidden or subtle. So far relatively few people have been infected; and its competitive success against other viruses means that anyone suffering flu-like symptoms today is very likely to have Sars2. In no scenario will Sars2 infect everyone, and many have immunity or will become immune without ever realising they were sick. The elderly and the vulnerable get Sars2 mostly from other elderly and vulnerable people, not from kids playing together outside or 20-somethings working out with their friends.

While I’ve written loosely about Sars2 and its nature throughout these essays, I’ve avoided citations entirely. I have left the facts that don't care about your feelings at the margins. Since the spring, Science has built a high wall of preferred doctrines around the empirical phenomenon of Sars2, and every field of inquiry relevant to the pandemic is now thoroughly policed for consensus compatibility. Publication bias alone ensures that nothing contrary to elite doctrines will see the light of day for a long time. A full, objective view will have to wait 20 or 30 years, when the people who have staked their careers on Covid retire.

In this environment of overwhelming confusion, what we can say for sure is very limited. Sars2 does not portend the end of civilisation, but it is somewhat bad. It is maybe ten times worse than influenza, and several times more contagious. Curiously, it has gotten less lethal with time, but it is still far from harmless. If Sars2 were given an uncontrolled run through the US population, excess deaths would probably reach the higher hundreds of thousands; 600,000 seems plausible, meaning a gross mortality spike perhaps of 20%. It would be a brief return to the mortality America saw in the later 1940s or early 1950s. The number of deaths officially attributed to Covid would be vastly higher. Hospitals would prioritise treatment by age. A lot of very old and sick people would have to settle for palliative care at home. That is the bluntest approach. Probably some lives could be saved, at least in the short-term, with a highly coordinated, very expensive effort to lock down the elderly and let the disease burn itself out among the less vulnerable. It might make sense to combine this approach with limited, regional closures and targeted travel restrictions, to keep hospitals at capacity and ensure optimal treatment. There would still be heightened mortality in this scenario; some people would suffer permanent pulmonary damage. But we would reach the end, and move on. Sweden, contrary to everything you read. never experienced an informal organic lock-down. It is slightly more interventionist than this, with a less extensive plan to shield the old and sick. If the first two options sound bad, note that Sweden is not on fire, and that the rather healthier Swedish population has not seen any dramatic mortality spikes compared to previous years. 

While Sars2 is bad, it’s not remotely what we’ve made it out to be. In the West we have driven mortality down to historic lows, and a lot of people have no personal experience of death. They believe anything that increases the risk of anyone dying is totally unacceptable, and they also drive cars and drink alcohol and they’re going sky-diving next month. Instead of facing Sars2 and managing it, we have tried to avoid it altogether, and in this we have totally failed.

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The question of how we ended up with this miserable social construction of Covid, and not with some other more manageable social construction of Covid, is well worth pondering. The most obvious answer is simply this: Our disease bureaucrats, a bunch of socially promoted charlatans and degree connoisseurs who play scientists on television, got spooked by Sars2. They had a lot of credentials but no real ideas, and so they borrowed their public health response from China.

Before January, lockdowns were totally foreign to the public health establishment. None of our governments or epidemiologists or disease-control agencies had ever before contemplated containing a pandemic by placing everybody under house arrest and freezing the better part of economic and social life. Lockdowns as a measure against Covid are, top to bottom, an invention not of a fabled „scientific consensus“, but of anonymous authoritarian Chinese bureaucrats whose motives and intent are largely opaque to us. Italian disease bureaucrats copied this measure from the Chinese bureaucrats, the rest of our disease bureaucrats copied from the Italians, and since then they have all continued the senseless copying of containment policies among themselves down to this very moment. If you are an incompetent pseudointellectual devoid of ideas, following others is your only option; and if you can get everyone else to follow in the same way, you might even escape blame.

Covid, the socially constructed virus-disease, was fashioned in the midst of the lockdowns, to justify them. It is a monument to the cognitive dissonance of our intelligentsia, who lobbied hard for a catastrophic policy on the strength of dire predictions that, save in a few much publicised cases, were never realised. Almost everything that has become „scientific consensus“ about Covid is a retroactive justification of our failed and plainly foolish containment measures: Covid lurks everywhere, and it is invisible, so we must hide from it in our homes. Covid is a totally novel disease, full of indeterminate properties and unknowable risks, so nobody can be exposed. Covid endangers everyone, and so everyone must stay inside. Even if young people are all but invulnerable to Covid, they too must lock down, to save the old.

That is the simplest, most straightforward answer to the question of how we got this Covid, and not some other Covid. It is equivalent to the wet-market theory of the origins of Sars2. We got Covid from the stupidity and incompetence of our elites, desperate to justify the economic destruction they wrought via their plagiarised containment measures. Relatedly, in the wet-market theory of Sars2, the virus found its way to humans via the unhygienic dietary practices of the Chinese, and was spread everywhere by the unrelenting globalism of our short-sighted elites.

But just as there are other theories that see Sars2 as an artificial laboratory invention, and perhaps even a biological weapon, so too there is another way of thinking about the deepest origins of our Covid construct. Cast your mind back to January, as the Chinese implemented their own lockdown of Hubei. Consider those bizarre videos that appeared on social media, showing Covid patients convulsing in streets, collapsing on stairs — succumbing, or so it seemed, to instant viral death. Some of this footage recalled scenes from Hollywood films, particularly Contagion. At the time, the framing was this: The Chinese were keeping a tight lid on the Wuhan outbreak, but here and there the magic of social media could defeat the evil communist censors and provide some glimpse of what was really going on. Clips of Chinese news coverage circulated, where the screen briefly flashed mortality figures orders of magnitude higher than the official numbers. This was the journalists trying to alert the rest of the world, or it was grim reality crying out from the ground, or something. All kinds of strange news items, about mass mobile account cancellations in China and industrial-scale cremation in Wuhan, were put about to show that the Chinese were dying in the millions. Everyone in the world watched blurry video of some Chinese guys welding a door shut. Online news outfits declared that the Chinese were literally sealing people in their apartments. That’s how bad Covid was. In the weeks before conditions deteriorated in Lombardy, a whole host of social media accounts began advocating lockdowns as a western containment measure. It has now emerged that many of these were operated by people in China.

Sophisticated propaganda and disinformation campaigns involve more than Russians buying Facebook ads. One tactic, is to take the idea you want to plant, cut it up into a bunch of different pieces, and release these to the world via various proxies and intermediaries. These little bits and piece might take the form of accidental leaks or hacked data or surreptitious photos or whatever. People gather these pieces and put them together, find that they all contribute to the same, ominous picture, and believe that they have discovered a hidden truth. This gives the lie an organic, authentic feel. It becomes a personal thesis and nobody realises that they have been led down the garden path. All of that early nonsense from China has entirely this feel about it. None of it was true, nobody really knows where it came from, but it all supported the same false hysteria.

So a deeper, more conspiratorial answer to the origins of our socially constructed disease, might be this: Covid is the ideological construct our disease bureaucrats wielded to justify their failed lockdowns; but at root, this construct was probably not of their making. They merely recycled the selfsame propaganda by which shadowy actors had sold them on lockdowns in the first place. It looks like some people (and „China“ is not nearly a precise enough explanation, of who these people might be) very much wanted at least some western governments to implement lockdowns. This led to a remarkable realignment of opinion, whereby the elite leftist establishment, which had sought to minimise the virus as much as possible, totally reversed their position by early March and began advocating a maximal approach. The Covid that we have now is all downstream from that, and there is no changing it.

How things started, of course, is no indication of how they will end. The optimistic scenario, is that the vaccine is rolled out in Spring 2021, and all of this goes away over the course of the next eighteen months. A major point against optimism, is that Covid has given a lot of terrible, petty, mediocre people a great deal of power, and they won’t be willing to give that up, ever. That is why now, with the vaccine in view, they have begun singing a new tune: It is no longer „two weeks to flatten the curve,“ but instead „Covid is the new normal“. It merely plays into their hands, that most of the vaccine candidates will likely provide limited immunity, might be dangerous for children, and possibly less effective for the elderly.* A point in favour of optimism, though, is that the vaccines might well align pharmaceuticals (and thus, part of Science) with those opposed to ongoing containment. Untold money has been spent on these vaccines, and if they promise an end to the onerous anti-Covid measures, the market for them will be deeper and wider.

A more pessimistic scenario, is that Covid devolves into an eternal nuisance after the pattern of climate change, but more intrusive. The vaccine comes, but mass testing and containment policies remain in place. Over the next several years, most countries fight their disease bureaucrats towards some minimally acceptable long-term compromise. Universities and other elite institutions achieve licenses to operate more or less as before; some of them even open programs in Virus Studies. The media hysteria never totally fades. Full lockdowns, contrary to the interests of many industries, are phased out, but less costly interventions return every year in time for Christmas. There are eternal campaigns against shaking hands, standing too close, or having too many people over for dinner. Contact tracers come to be loathed as much as city parking enforcers. Government Covid policy is gradually redirected towards pharmaceutical boondoggles and hygiene legislation that creates markets for a new world of garbage consumer products. Should Sars2 become especially rare, then other seasonal respiratory illnesses, like the flu, could be pressed into service. A whole generation of kids grows up wearing crayola-branded dinosaur masks in school.

Still more pessimistic scenarios would probably resolve themselves, sooner or later. It is hard to see how any western democracy could endure the economic destruction of biannual lockdowns, or other similarly drastic interventions, for very long, without destabilising itself politically. The disease bureaucrats are not omnipotent. They have seized power, on temporary terms, from other political players, who will sooner or later try to get it back. Intemperate Covid policies have also inspired a wide array of opposition throughout academia and government. I don’t mean people like Ioannidis or Levitt or Gupta. I mean other, quieter people, who started out waiting for this to go away, and are now wondering what might be done about it. Eventually they will condense into various opposition factions. In some countries they might even win.  

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Now that nobody is reading any longer, it is time to explore what might be done about all this. Covid’s features are fixed, but the disease establishment that has been conjured to manage it is still new and vulnerable. They must face stiff headwinds, to increase the likelihood that they’ll withdraw in the face of the vaccine, or concede to a more amenable regulatory stalemate.

It sounds banal and simplistic, but the most urgent thing to do is make Covid containment policy a matter of public debate. We must do everything to defeat the mythology of Covid Science that prescribes only one way. Politicians and scientists in the opposition must explain, at every opportunity, that Covid containment measures have been a total failure. Nobody, anywhere, has contained Sars2. They should say that the same people who told you not to be racist and that Milan will never close in February are now in October scolding you for daring to go to the pub with some friends. They should say summer Covid containment in northern Europe was plainly stupid, as it just means more people will suffer winter infections, which will likely be worse. They should say that none of these people have any idea what they are doing. Every time Angela Merkel or some miscellaneous health authority or Covid enthusiast ventures to scold a nation for its social customs, they should provide a full-throated defence of ordinary people living their ordinary lives. They should say that it is the Covid containment policies that are failing, but the people who are being blamed for it. Once we can finally have an argument about what is to be done, the Covid Science will start to lose.

The next matter, is the odious Covid tsars that many of our nations have appointed. These are people who play wise men of learning on television. They are the conduit through which Covid Science makes its way into politics. The UK used to have Neil Ferguson, but he got caught violating the very lockdown he’d helped engineer. Now they just have their SAGE committee, where scientists dictate policy to Boris Johnson’s baffled government. The US has Fauci; in Germany we have Drosten. These people are very important. If you doubt that, consider how much onerous nonsense Anders Tegnell, the tsar of Swedish Covid, has spared his country (and how much international opprobrium he has attracted: every moment that Sweden fails to melt down, is a wholesale refutation of Covid Science). The Covid tsars are a weak point in the structure, and the opposition, particularly political rivals of disease bureaucrats, should figure out how to get rid of them. They control and channel Science, so there is no proving them wrong. Attempts to do this with Drosten have failed, merely inducing Science to circle the wagons. The nature of Trump’s political support is that he could simply fire Fauci with few consequences, and that is exactly what he should do. Elsewhere, the tsars have politicians against the wall, and it is worth thinking about how they might be promoted to an empty office in some distant place with intermittent communications, or simply bought off, or morally discredited, or indicted for something. Maybe it would be enough to hire more tsars, a whole fleet of them, who can have elaborate arguments with each other, perhaps even in something so absurd as televised Covid Debates. Anything to break the sacred myths that Science has a single message and that there is a right answer and that ordinary people who object to open-ended house arrests are ignorant and wrong.  

Should the opposition get political control, their first step must be to abolish mass testing and contact tracing. If they don’t do this first of all, any attempt to roll back containment will result in media hysteria and they won’t be in power for long. The numbers generated by testing programs are invariably cast as a problem in themselves, but they are also used to shift focus away from the concrete present (where, for most of us most of the time, nothing very bad is happening) towards a modelled future (where a lot of bad is invariably prognosticated for everyone). These models are not science, but a form of advocacy, through which epidemiologists hope to convince politicians to implement what they believe to be life-saving policies. The daily case numbers, now read as a measure of success or failure in our fight against Covid, have become a political pathology. The whole thing has to be turned off. When it is, Covid Science will begin to founder. What do you think happened to Covid in China? And consider Sweden, which seems never to have expanded test capacity after the first wave. It is impossible for Covid Science to kick up much fuss without the statistics it craves. We must starve it everywhere.

One way to ditch mass testing without advancing openly against Covid Science, might be to announce it will be phased out after some random vaccination metric is met. The excuse would be that the diagnostic capacity is needed elsewhere and that there are more things on heaven and earth than Sars2. Once mass testing is gone, psychosis surrounding Covid subsides, and containment policies are scaled back, one thing is certain: The sky will not fall. When enough people realise their hospitals are not on fire and the end of days has not opened before them, Covid Science will be over. 

This seems an outlandish scenario, but I think it might happen somewhere.

*Update January 2021: The vaccines appear to be far more effective than expected last Fall. As if in compensation, vaccination programs in Western countries are moving far more slowly than anybody would’ve anticipated when I wrote this. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Covid Is A Social Construct: Part IV

Part I: Covid is a Hidden, Lurking Menace

Part II: Covid is a Novel, Extra-Natural Disease

Part III: Covid is Universal

And now Part IV:

 Covid is a Vice of the Young and the Healthy Against the Old and the Sick

We come to the fourth obtrusive feature of our socially-constructed Covid. By nautical miles, it is the most egregious and appalling one of all, and so I regret that I have the least to say about it. Stupid cruelty does not admit of much analysis.

Sars2 is no threat to the young, We said that already. What is more, disease bureaucracies have not been able to convince the young that they, personally, should worry about Sars2. The only way to enforce the one-size-fits-all measures that Universal Covid demands, is via an ugly moral blackmail.

What began as an appeal in early days to the conscience of the youth, to consider the health of their grandparents, has become an all-out war on everything that young, healthy and fit people do. Here is insight into the withered souls of many scientists and politicians, who see in the casual joy, effortless strength and unthinking beauty of our youth a great indictment of themselves. Many of them have long disliked young people and what they get up to, and now they have been given the power to vent their spleens about it.

The social life of young people irks them most of all. Parties are scorned. Contact tracers routinely identify private celebrations as outbreak epicentres, and from the press reports, you’d think whole districts are rising up in rage against the kids who dared to gather in somebody's friend's garage. German police spent a good part of the spring citing teenagers who, after weeks of isolation, dared to get a few beers with friends in the park. It was truly strange to behold: Patrol cars sporting loudspeakers driving slowly along footpaths, between the trees, past benches, reciting the corona distancing rules. 

It’s safe to complain about parties, because some people stupidly assume they aren’t essential, or that they‘re irresponsible or excessive. But behind the scenes, these ageing meddlers were busy attacking everything else. They closed gyms for months. When they allowed them to reopen, the conditions were so onerous and counterproductive that it was hard to doubt malicious intent. A whole cloud of official opprobrium descended upon every sort of recreational travel, and remains there. Early disease clusters were traced to skiers, and a batch of young people who'd had the misfortune to visit Ischgl at the wrong time were handed responsibility for several national outbreaks. (Chinese tourists, responsible for the entire European pandemic, remained beyond criticism, even as Italy and Germany had a brief spat over who introduced the virus to whom.) In Bavaria, open-air playgrounds were closed for weeks and weeks, longer than hair salons, in case you thought any of this was about the risk of infection. 

When anonymous bureaucrats of this sort are given their way, secure in the knowledge that nobody will hold them accountable for their egregious decisions, and that every mild critique of their policies will be suppressed, they spiral into extremism. In the midst of the lockdown, they began to complain that people were shopping for groceries too frequently and spending too much time in supermarkets. After mask requirements were issued for public transit and indoor spaces, newspapers ran very strange articles lecturing their readers about proper mask procedures Readers were told never to put on a mask until they'd thoroughly washed and sanitised their hands. Then they were told never to touch the mask again at all. Should they touch it the mask would become hopelessly contaminated, and their hands too, so they'd need to sterilise them all over again and start over with a new mask. It was common to hear that if you did not do all of these ridiculous things, while you were taking the subway to work, serving patrons in your bar, or going to the toilet, your mask was useless. Runners and walkers were still allowed outside, for purposes of exercise, and this made the disease bureaucrats very nervous indeed. Pundits complained that parks were too full. Schoolmarms posing as experts began telling runners that their heavy breathing was a danger to everyone within three or four metres of them. 

Covid the socially constructed virus-disease exploits the health and beauty of youth to reach the old, but to what degree this is also the strategy of Sars2, the biological virus-disease, remains wholly unclear. All those quick-to-lecture bureaucrats have demonstrated an odd yet pervasive incuriosity when it comes to this question. The high-fatality situations we know about were anything but infections via grandchildren. They were rather institutional events. Sars2 achieves its most harrowing mortality stats when it gets into nursing homes, or into the right hospital wings, where the carnage is heightened given the far higher viral load associated with infection in these environments. In the spring, it was ironically the most alarmist regions, those that imposed the strictest lockdowns nominally for the safety of the elderly, which ended up killing more elderly than anybody else, due to over-hospitalisation of Covid patients and poor management of elderly Sars2 cases.  

Undeniably, Sars2 – like many other viruses – exploits the social activity of humans. The Covid bureaucrats have responded by laying a taboo upon basically all human social activity that is not mediated by electronics. People who violate these restrictions are behaving irresponsibly and endangering all of society. Consider how much this stance differs from their approach to other viruses. Were gay men, at any point, ever exhorted to abstain from sex in the interests of defeating HIV? Was the gay community ever blamed for the AIDS epidemic and scolded by public health bureaucrats for worsening statistics? Were gay bars and bath houses ever targeted for closure or curfews or — imagine! — contact tracing, to flatten the curve? No, they weren't; and if any of that had happened, we'd be reading to this day what a grave injustice all of it was. HIV is undeniably much harder on those it infects than Sars2, and I submit that, in the hierarchy of human needs, quotidian social interaction ranks well above anal sex. 

To summarise: For the vast majority of the young and healthy, the only lingering consequence of a Sars2 infection will be some form of immunity. Rather than let this low-risk population remove itself from the virus economy through natural exposure, our state-sponsored guilt mongering campaign has targeted their ranks in particular, and subjected the school-aged among them to some of the most truly onerous restrictions of all. The non-institutionalised elderly population, meanwhile, has been left almost entirely to their own devices. 

So there is no question: Covid as a vice of the young and the healthy against the old and the sick, is a great myth. But it is also a calumny, and someone is at fault for it. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Covid Is A Social Construct: Part III

Here, Covid is the name I'm using for the socially constructed virus-disease that has descended upon our world. The actual biological virus-disease, which I call Sars2, is something different. Covid, as it has been constructed by our cultural and political authorities, has a variety of features that serve the interests of powerful people and the scientific establishment. For example, it is omnipresent yet invisible (Part I of this series); and it is totally new and exists beyond nature, such that it has very few stable properties and can only be countered by medical technology or social interventions from the public health bureaucracy (Part II of this series). 

Both of these aspects imply a third:

Covid Is Universal 

Covid is the great sin of globalism, and globalism has brought it everywhere. Only Antarctica remains Covid-free. Covid can infect animals as well as humans, and the prospect of reinfection has been leveraged to dispel the idea that anyone might become immune from Covid. In this way, the disease applies always and everywhere to everyone. (The opposite and far better-documented phenomenon, that a lot of people who have never had Sars2 have some partial immunity— presumably from prior non-Sars2 coronavirus infections—is contrary to Universal Covid and so it is excluded from our impressions.) 

Because Covid is everywhere, and everybody is subject to it, containment policies must also be general. For the disease bureaucrats, Universal Covid is a central doctrine, eagerly defended. The myth of Universal Covid is reinforced by the infection statistics we hear about every day. The only thing that ever makes headlines, is how many positive swabs there were today, as opposed to yesterday or last week; and which regions have the most infections right now. Since the Lombard outbreak, everybody grasps that Covid outbreaks have a regional particularism about them, but this is never presented as a challenge to Covid's universality. Regional "hot-spots" are universally applicable examples of what will happen to your region, too, if Covid is not suppressed there and everywhere. Positive swabs might also be broken down into age cohorts, and these function much the same way. If your region has many new cases, but nobody really seems to be sick or dying, this is because the pandemic is currently concentrated among young people. (This is the only explanation ever given.) Old people are next, if everybody does not comply with suppression measures. The effect is to make grim statistics a problem, even in the total absence of anybody actually suffering or dying.

Beyond these crude numbers, you don't know anything about all those positive swabs or the processes that generated them at all. It is very hard to figure out, for example, how many of them represent people who tested positive last week, and now have submitted a second test to see if they've cleared the virus and can leave their apartment again. Crucial for the interpretation of any such statistics, is to know how many of them emerge from contact-tracing operations, from the kinds of routine tests administered to people like doctors and other at-risk functionaries, and how many of them reflect actual patients seeking medical treatment. Most countries now have entire teams of contact-tracers working backwards from every positive test to find new cases. Each uncovered infection becomes a gateway to the discovery of more infections. When the tracers find a particularly rich vein of contacts, case statistics jump suddenly and corona is held to be on the march. Equally central, if you want to make sense of these numbers, is how many of these people are actually sick. These things are only sporadically reported, if ever. They are certainly never part of the ordinary Covid press coverage. 

Western nations instituted mass testing programs, a universal solution to Universal Covid, after the example of South Korea. In the early days, it was thought that the Koreans had avoided a serious outbreak, without locking down, by testing and tracing everybody. So now we're doing that too. The theory was that the technocrats would find the positives, shut them away, and allow the rest of us to go about our lives. In practice, it has been pretty much the opposite. Mass testing and tracing, far from replacing lockdowns, merely provide the data to justify instituting them. You cannot test and trace your way out of the Universal Covid we have constructed for ourselves. That would only work for a Local Covid or an Endemic Covid, which we have not built—a Covid that afflicts certain people and not others. So the contact tracers do their thing, but the statistics that their testing and tracing generate are used to assess the state of the Covid outbreak for absolutely everybody and general, universal solutions are deployed in response to them. 

The German government is highly federalised, even more so than the United States. Much of the governing actually happens at the level of individual federal states, or Bundesländer. Each of the states could, in theory, manage its own corona response, according to local circumstances and sensibilities. You’d think this would be an advantage, because the instance of Sars2 infections varies vastly across Germany, and people in different states have different opinions about how to deal with it. If different states had gone their different ways, we would now have very direct insight into the effectiveness of competing containment policies. Of course, nobody in government sees it that way. Instead, Angela Merkel has spent every minute fighting against a federal approach and demanding a unified response. Newspapers have deplored our traditional federalism. Merkel has not succeeded everywhere, and it is likely that the next few months will see more defectors. Nevertheless, the message is clear: Universal Covid is the same everywhere, and the solutions must be the same too. 

A final expression of Universal Covid lies in the universal mathematical formulae that were once widely held to predict its future progress. In March, the population of the entire world received instruction in the basics of exponential functions. It was thought, as the first wave advanced, that Covid could be plotted on a graph, with time as the x axis and new cases as the y axis. Wherever Covid was spreading, this exercise yielded a curve sloping upwards to the right. Predicting the future course of Covid became a simple matter of plotting that same exponential function into future x-axis time. A lot of commentators, including many scientists, portrayed the resulting projections as mathematical certainties. This was important because raw infection numbers differed everywhere: Lombardy had the worst statistics, and so it was in the lead. Behind it were France and Spain, where Lombardy had been the previous week. Further back was Germany, which needed still three or four more weeks to reach a catastrophe of Lombardic scale. But the math assured all of us that the same thing would happen everywhere, eventually. I will confess that I found all of this powerfully convincing at the time. The flat edifice of Universal Covid seemed to brook no contradictions. But typing it all out now, it is easy to see how foolish it was. Covid did not work the same everywhere, and the curves themselves were never forever and always exponential. Germany never caught up to Lombardy. It never even came close. 

Those graphs have receded from our conceptions of Covid. That is not only because they were wrong, but because they ended up drawing attention to how much all of the national outbreaks differed from each other. They were a direct shot across the bow of Universal Covid, and in April and May you could read very long essays by deeply mystified people, pondering how this was possible and what was going on. Many of the authors behind these think pieces were presumably familiar with things like seasonal flu epidemics, which in Europe often differ drastically across regions, even though the same virus is typically implicated every season. Influenza, however, isn't really constructed to be a universal affliction, so its various impacts have never bothered anybody.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Covid Is A Social Construct: Part II

In Part 1, I talked about Covid as a hidden, lurking menace

Consider how this has coloured our approach to children. Sars2, everybody knows, is not a danger to them. The virus himself has been very clear about this and it has not been possible for the disease bureaucrats to overrule him. It is easy to imagine a parallel universe, one where we are relieved at the near-total safety of our children in the face of this disease, one where we spare them the effects of public health interventions, because they are not at risk. 

That is not our world. Government bureaucracies are heavily involved in the lives of children, particularly through schools. Thus public health authorities and, most unnaturally, many women, have come to fear children as a vector of infection. Some people even believe children are the main drivers of the pandemic. Covid lurks, a deadly silent threat, inside them, wherever they gather to play, wherever they gather in school. Classrooms and childcare centres have become places of intense microbial hysteria, silly simulacra of hospitals, with odd plexiglass barriers, hand sanitiser around every corner, and constant, constant testing. In this world Covid creates its own reality vortex. You find infections where you swab the most. Every time schools are opened, intense surveillance uncovers a new flood of cases, which cements the image of children as dangerous and contaminated, a mortal threat to their grandparents. 

If you say to a person of orthodox political alignments that this is a bizarre approach to any disease, to surround precisely those people at least risk with so many precautions, harmful in themselves; and at the same time to leave those most at-risk to their own devices with vague advice to self-isolate, they will say a great many things to you. One of the first things they say will be this: Covid is a totally new virus. It poses an unknown and wholly unprecedented threat to our society. There are no low-risk populations, and there is no way way to protect the vulnerable from this pervasive invisible pathogen. All we can do is disrupt hidden transmission among the invulnerable carriers.

Thus I bring you Part II:

Covid Is A Novel, Extra-Natural Disease

As with the hidden menace, the foundations for this aspect of Covid were laid early on. Covid is either a zoonotic virus, brought upon humans by exotic Chinese dietary practices; or it is a laboratory invention, unleashed with some sinister purpose or by accident. However you choose to think about it, Covid is totally new to humans; it is unlike any disease we have ever faced before. It is beyond nature and we have no natural defences against it. In the discourse surrounding Covid there has always been the tendency to push this extra-natural facet to the extremes, nearly to the supernatural. The early paranoia about surfaces comes to mind yet again, with those old stories of mail-room employees picking up Covid from packages sent from far-off, plague-ridden lands. Covid can perfuse the air for hours after a fateful cough. There is no general unified Covid with a limited set of properties. Attempts to fix its characteristics dissolve in a pool of contradictory evidence. Note the widely differing characteristics of Covid in neighbouring, broadly similar countries. The better part of this variation arises from different national bureaucracies, which have lent Covid different properties according to their capacities and proclivities. But of course the variation is not understood in that way; it is rather put down to some magical aspect of the virus itself. Extra-natural virions do one thing in Sweden, and another thing in Germany, and another thing in Italy. 

Because Covid is an extra-natural disease, our natural immune systems are not up to fighting it. This is why the prospect of reinfection has been integral to Covid from the very beginning. The first rumours of reinfection arose in China, where reinfected were said to suffer devastating symptoms, such as heart attacks. Similar cases were never observed in the West and so we stopped talking about that. Later on, South Korean health officials began reporting various cases of reinfection, but then it emerged that this was an artefact of the manic Korean testing regime. Recovering Covid patients issued multiple PCR tests may swab negative one day and positive the next, as their body sheds the virus. Though they had been proven wrong twice, reinfection theories persisted. Minor victory came when some serological studies failed to find antibodies in some confirmed Covid patients. Later they had the holy grail, namely several confirmed genuine reinfections. 

You could say, perhaps, that the reinfectionists on the Covid committee forced a compromise with Sars2 on this point. Reinfection aligns neatly with established doctrine about the inadequacy of our natural defences. Only broad-scale social and political countermeasures have any chance of success against Covid. Think of it as a substitute, artificial, social immune system: Lockdowns, curfews, quarantines, travel bans, mass testing, masks, school closures, personal distance, interior ventilation, hand sanitiser, contact tracing apps, home office, and more. This is what a mass society of immune-compromised people looks like. Just as our bodily immune response is responsible for many of the symptoms we associate with illness, so too is the social immune response responsible for the majority of negative effects from Covid. We have made our whole society sick, in order to keep some people healthy. 

The body's immune system can overreact to the point that it poses a greater danger than the infection itself. In a related way, our social response to Sars2 has entered an inflammatory phase, a spiral of disease hysteria demanding mass testing and contact tracing leading to the discovery of more cases causing more stringent anti-Covid social measures that just make our nations and our societies vastly sicker and more dysfunctional than we were six months ago. Remember that this all started with "two weeks to crush the curve," and consider how far we have come, and how far we might go still. It goes without saying that all these negative effects are taken as further proof of the unusual threat that Covid poses.

Beyond the extra-natural social defences, we hope for an extra-natural vaccine. Here the discourse devolves into awkward contradiction. To begin with, vaccines, while indeed extra-natural, merely stimulate natural immunity. If we may hope for a vaccine, it is unclear why we cannot let some of our natural immune systems join the fight. What is more, despite unprecedented mass testing programs and enormous scientific interest and the bias of our perspective, only a few cases of Covid reinfection have ever been confirmed. Those developing our extra-natural vaccines, meanwhile, have been warning for a long time that their products will provide only partial protection against Sars2. Natural immunity is no defence against Covid; only the vaccine, which will not work nearly as well, can save us.

Fundamental to this paradox, is the axiom that extra-natural Covid poses an unknowable yet grave risk to everyone. Reinfection is only the beginning of it; the second infection is liable to be much worse. All those people who have recovered without lingering effects may well develop brain lesions next year. The health of their internal organs has yet to be confirmed and there are dark suppositions that no few harbour hidden heart or liver or kidney damage. A lot of people might never smell again. Many recover only to relapse several weeks later, and perhaps again several weeks after that. There is a growing body of literature about Long Covid, a chronic syndrome marked by ongoing fatigue, shortness of breath and a whole world of other symptoms that linger for months after PCR-certified recovery.

Before you get into the weeds of the journal literature on Long Covid or permanent organ damage from Sars2, consider this: Officially, the virus has infected over 30 million people across the world. That is a great river, wide and deep, for our Covid committee to trawl for stories of unusual complications, debilitating symptoms, and incomplete convalescences, from now until forever. The question is not, what odd horrible things lurk in that river; but how many of them there are, relative to the ordinary pedestrian things. What are you most likely to find? Long Covid and relapsed Covid and heart attack Covid? Or low-grade grade fever Covid, mild-cough Covid, over-in-five-days-without-a-second-thought Covid? I think we can all answer that question for ourselves. That we let the rare and the unusual dominate our construction of Covid, rather than the mild and the pedestrian, is partly down to publication bias. The banal almost never makes it into print; the strange and unusual invariably find an audience. 

But that is not the only reason we must constantly hear about the grave unknown risks of this extra-natural disease. There are others too, and the biggest is simply this: The bureaucracies responsible for constructing Covid have decided that infections must be minimised above all else. That is the Sisyphean task they have set themselves. As the costs of their containment measures increase and society gets sicker, they must tell ever grimmer stories about why it is unacceptable for anyone, ever, to contract Sars2. 

On to Part III: Covid is Universal