Panic goods

I was listening to a talk by Ian Diamond of the Office for National Statistics, about the statistical response to Covid. He showed the results of a survey that was organised spontaneously a year ago by ONS, of the price changes of various “panic goods”. There were 22 product categories on the list, including

  • antibacterial surface wipes
  • baby food
  • toilet rolls
  • vitamin C
  • tomato puree
  • nappies
  • paracetamol
  • pet food

The choice makes perfect sense. And I found myself imagining showing this list to myself 2 years ago, and being challenged to guess what the theme of the list is…

Absence of caution: The European vaccine suspension fiasco

Multiple European countries have now suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, because of scattered reports of rare clotting disorders following vaccination. In all the talk of “precautionary” approaches the urgency of the situation seems to be suddenly ignored. Every vaccine triggers serious side effects in some small number of individuals, occasionally fatal, and we recognise that in special systems for compensating the victims. It seems worth considering, when looking at the possibility of several-in-a-million complications, how many lives may be lost because of delayed vaccinations.

I start with the case fatality rate (CFR) from this metaanalysis, and multiply them by the current overall weekly case rate, which is 1.78 cases/thousand population in the EU (according to data from the ECDC). This ignores the differences between countries, and differences between age groups in infection rate, and certainly underestimates the infection rate for obvious reasons of selective testing.

Age group0-3435-4445-5455-6465-7475-8485+
CFR (per thousand)0.040.682.37.52585283
Expected fatalities per week per million population0.071.24.11345151504
Number of days delay to match VFR120070206.41.80.60.2

Let’s assume now that all of the blood clotting problems that have occurred in the EEA — 30 in total, according to this report — among the 5 million receiving the AZ vaccine were actually caused by the vaccine, and suppose (incorrectly) that all of those people had died.* That would produce a vaccine fatality rate (VFR) of 6 per million. We can double that to account for possible additional unreported cases, or other kinds of complications that have not yet been recognised. We can then calculate how many days of delay would cause as many extra deaths as the vaccine itself might cause.

The result is fairly clear: even the most extreme concerns raised about the AZ vaccine could not justify even a one-week delay in vaccination, at least among the population 55 years old and over. (I am also ignoring here the compounding effect of onward transmission prevented by vaccination, which makes the delay even more costly.) As is so often the case, “abundance of caution” turns out to be the opposite of cautious.

* I’m using only European data here, to account for the contention that there may be a specific problem with European production of the vaccine. The UK has used much more of the AZ vaccine, with even fewer problems.

The poisoned roots of German anti-vax sentiment

I’ve long thought it odd that Germany, where the politics is generally fairly rational, and science education in particular is generally quite good, has such broad acceptance of homeopathy and a variety of other forms of quackery, and a special word — Schulmedizin — “academic medicine” — to express a dismissive attitude toward what elsewhere would be called just “medicine”, or perhaps “evidence-based medicine”. I was recently looking into the history of this, and found that attacks on Schulmedizin — or “verjudete Schulmedizin” (jewified academic medicine) — were as much a part of the Nazi state science policy as “German mathematics” and “Arian physics”.

Medicine in the Third Reich remained a weird mixture of modern virology and pseudo-scientific “racial hygiene”. The celebrated physician Erwin Liek wrote

Es ist mein Glaube, dass das deutsche Volk berufen ist, nach und nach eine ganz neue, rein deutsche Heilkunst zu entwickeln.
(It is my belief, that the German people has a calling, gradually to develop a pure German art of healing.)

Liek was appealing for a synthesis of Schulmedizin with traditional German treatment. As with Arian physics*, and the Nazi state was careful not to push the healthy German understanding so far as to undermine important technology and industry. But the appeal to average people’s intuitive discomfort with modern science was a powerful propaganda tool that they couldn’t resist using, as in this 1933 cartoon “The vaccination” from Der Stürmer that shows an innocent blond arian mother uncomfortably watching her baby being vaccinated by a fiendish Jewish doctor. The caption reads “This puts me in a strange mood/Poison and Jews never do good.”

1933 Cartoon from Der Stürmer: Blond German mother looking concerned as a beastly Jewish doctor vaccinates her baby. Caption: "This puts me in a strange mood/Poison and Jews are seldom good."
1933 Der Stürmer cartoon “The vaccination”.

Today’s anti-vaxers fulminating against Schulmedizin and the Giftspritze (poison shot) are not necessarily being consciously anti-Semitic, but the vocabulary and the paranoid conspiracy thinking are surely not unconnected.

* Heisenberg was famously proud of having protected “Jewish physics” from being banned at his university, considering himself a hero for continuing to teach relativity theory, even while not objecting to the expulsion of the Jewish physicists, and agreeing not to attach their names to their work. Once when I was browsing in the science section of a Berlin bookstore in the early 1990s a man started chatting with me, telling me that he had worked for decades as a radio engineer in the GDR, and then going on to a long monologue apropos of nothing about how wonderful Heisenberg was, and how he had courageously defended German science during the Third Reich.

Exotic animal farming

I remember when people were muttering about Covid-19 being all the fault of the weird Chinese and their weird obsession with eating weird animals like pangolins.

So now we have a second version of Covid, that may start a completely novel pandemic, and it comes from the weird Europeans and their weird obsession with wearing the fur of weird animals like minks. Apparently, it was well known that Covid was spreading widely among the minks, but the animals were too valuable to give up on, so they tried to get away with just culling the obviously sick ones. And now we can just hope that they can get the new plague out of Denmark under control before it becomes a second pandemic.

But the people who advocate just giving up on eating and wearing animals are still treated as something between dreamy mystics and lunatics…

The opposite of a superficial lie

“The opposite of a fact is a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Niels Bohr

The news media have gotten themselves tangled up, from the beginning of the Trump era, in the epistemological question of whether any statement can objectively be called a lie. Yes, Trump says things that are untrue, that contradict objectively known facts, but are they lies? Does he have the appropriate mens rea to lie, the intention to deceive, or is that just a partisan insult?

The opposite problem has gotten too little attention. Just because Donald Trump says something that corresponds to objective facts, one cannot infer that he is speaking the truth. (We don’t really have a word in English to correspond to the opposite of lie, in this dichotomy.) A good example is the controversy over Trump’s private and public comments on the incipient Coronavirus pandemic in February and March of this year. On February 7, 2020, Trump told Woodward

You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.

This is quite an accurate statement, and also very different than what he was saying publicly. On February 10 he said, in a campaign speech,

I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.

And February 26 in an official White House pandemic task force briefing:

The 15 [case count in the U.S.] within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. … This is a flu. This is like a flu.

When you see that someone has been saying one thing in public and something completely different in private, it’s natural to interpret the former as lying and the latter as the secret truth — particularly when, as in this case, the private statement is known to be, in fact, true, and the public statement false. And particularly when the speaker later says

I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.

With Trump, though, this interpretation is likely false.

The thing is, while his statement of February 7 was true, he could not have known it was true. No one knew it was true. We can see any number of statements by responsible public-health officials making similar statements at the time. For example, Anthony Fauci on February 19:

Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is “just minuscule.” But he does want them to take precautions against the “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.”

“We have more kids dying of flu this year at this time than in the last decade or more,” he said. “At the same time people are worrying about going to a Chinese restaurant. The threat is (we have) a pretty bad influenza season, particularly dangerous for our children.”

And it’s not just Americans under the thumb of Trump. February 6, the day before Trump’s remark to Woodward, the head of the infectious disease clinic at a major Munich hospital, where some of the first German Covid-19 patients were being treated, told the press that “Corona is definitely not more dangerous than influenza,” and criticised the panic that was coming from exaggerated estimates of mortality rates.

Researchers were posting their data and models in real time, but there just wasn’t enough understanding possible then. This is the kind of issue where the secret information that a government has access to is of particularly limited value.

So how are we to interpret Trump’s statements? I think the key is that Trump is not a liar per se, he is a conman and a bullshitter, someone to whom the truth of his statements is completely irrelevant.

In early February he probably did receive a briefing where the possibility that the novel coronavirus was highly lethal and airborne was raised as one possibility, as well as the possibility that it was mild and would disappear on its own. .In talking to elite journalist Bob Woodward he delivered up the most frightening version, not because he believed it was true, but because it seemed most impressive, making him seem like the mighty keeper of dangerous secrets. When talking to the public he said something different, because he had other motives. It’s purely coincidence that what he said in private turned out to be true.

It would be poetic justice of Trump were to be damaged by the bad luck of one time accidentally having told the truth.

Early Trumpist medical treatments

And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute! And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that.

When Donald Trump used a Covid-19 press briefing to recommend injecting disinfectants to kill viruses within the human body, people reacted as though this were entirely unprecedented. But it wasn’t, entirely. From Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society:

Of all nineteenth-century treatments for epidemic cholera, however, perhaps the most painful was the acid enema, which physicians administered in the 1880s in a burst of excessive optimism after Robert Koch’s discovery of V. cholerae. Optimistic doctors reasoned that since they at last knew what the enemy was and where it was lodged in the body, and since they also understood that bacteria are vulnerable to acid, as Lister had demonstrated, all they needed to destroy the invader and restore patients’ health was to suffuse their bowels with carbolic acid. Even though neither Koch nor Lister ever sanctioned such a procedure, some of their Italian followers nevertheless attempted this treatment during the epidemic of 1884–1885. The acid enema was an experimental intervention that, in their view, followed the logic of Koch’s discoveries and Lister’s practice. The results, however, were maximally discouraging…

Apparently it’s a not uncommon response on someone first learning of the germ theory of disease.

Vaccine probabilities

From an article on the vaccine being developed by Robin Shattock’s group at Imperial College:

The success rate of vaccines at this stage of development is 10%, Shattock says, and there are already probably 10 vaccines in clinical trials, “so that means we will definitely have one”

It could be an exercise for a probability course:

  1. Suppose there are exactly 10 vaccines in this stage of development. What is the probability that one will succeed?
  2. Interpret “probably 10 vaccines” to mean that the number of vaccines in clinical trials is Poisson distributed with parameter 10. What is the probability that one will succeed?

Plagues and statues

I’ve been reading Camus’ La Peste, hoping to obtain some insight into one of the great crises of the present, and finding him commenting on a completely different one. At the height of the epidemic of the novel, the narrator comments on the aspect of the silent, immobilised city, and expresses resentment toward the statues that are permanently in that condition.

La grande cité silencieuse n’était plus alors qu’un assemblage de cubes massifs et inertes, entre lesquels les effigies taciturnes de bienfaiteurs oubliés ou d’anciens grands hommes étouffés à jamais dans le bronze s’essayaient seules, avec leurs faux visages de pierre ou de fer, à évoquer une image dégradée de ce qui avait été l’homme. Ces idoles médiocres trônaient sous un ciel épais, dans les carrefours sans vie, brutes insensibles qui figuraient assez bien le règne immobile où nous étions entrés ou du moins son ordre ultime, celui d’une nécropole où la peste, la pierre et la nuit auraient fait taire enfin toute voix.

The huge, silent city had become nothing more than a collection of solid, inert cubes, where the taciturn effigies of forgotten benefactors or ancient great men were suffocated forever in bronze, evoking a solitary, degraded image of what man had once been. These mediocre idols, enthroned under a thick sky, in the lifeless crossroads, unfeeling beasts that symbolised well the immobilised realm we had entered, or at least its ultimate order, that of a necropolis where plague, stone, and night would have finally silences any voice.

I’ve commented before on how odd it is that, just because some of our ancestors chose to cast their images in heavy bronze or marble and plonk them down at significant sites in our cities, that we should feel obliged to keep them there. But I assumed that the current attacks on statues of racists was unrelated to the pandemic situation, mere coincidence of crises, except perhaps that the lockdown left people with lots of pent-up energy.

But maybe there’s something about coping with an epidemic that inspires iconoclasm?

Adrift on the Covid Sea

Political leaders in many countries — but particularly in the US and UK — are in thrall above all to the myth of progress. Catastrophes may happen, but then they get better. And to superficial characters like Johnson and Trump, the improvements seem automatic. It’s like a law of nature.

So, we find ourselves having temporarily stemmed the flood of Covid infections, with governments laying out fantastic plans for “reopening”. Even though nothing significant has changed. The only thing that could make this work — absent a vaccine — would be an efficient contact tracing system or a highly effective treatment for the disease. None of which we have. But we still have a timeline for opening up pubs and cinemas (though less important facilities like schools are still closed, at least for many year groups).

It’s like we had been adrift for days in a lifeboat on the open ocean, carefully conserving our supplies. And there’s still no rescue in sight, but Captain Johnson announces that since we’re all hungry from limiting our food rations, and the situation has now stabilised, we will now be transitioning toward full rations.

Capitalist omelettes

Communists are routinely stigmatised by association with the adage “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”, which is taken to summarise their willingness to excuse present cruelty in the name of never-realised lofty future goals.. In the 1930s it was sufficiently widespread that the hero of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here exclaimed

If I ever hear that ‘can’t make an omelet’ phrase again, I’ll start doing a little murder myself! It’s used to justify every atrocity under every despotism, Fascist or Nazi, or Communist or American labor war. Omelet! Eggs! By God, sir, men’s souls and blood are not eggshells for tyrants to break!

Sick of hearing this justification on a tour of the Soviet Union in the early days of Stalin’s rule, Panait Istrati famously retorted, “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelet of yours?”

Anyway, these days the true radical utopians are the capitalists, and so we have seen the right wing in the US — and elsewhere — following Donald Trump in obsessing over stock market declines in a pandemic. “Don’t let the cure be worse than the disease.” The deadly cure being a reduction in economic activity, and the disease being… an actual often fatal disease. The epitome of this tendency was the Lieutenant Governor of Texas proclaiming that the older generation — in which he includes himself, to be fair — needs to be ready to die in the current pandemic to avert destruction from the American economy: “keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren”. In other words, we need to break some elderly (and young immune-compromised) so our grandchildren can have the omelettes.

Except they’ll still have to eat their omelettes indoors, because the same people insist on boiling the planet. More eggs, more omelettes.

The bourgeoisie will not only sell the rope for their own hanging. On the scaffold they will try to underbid the hangman to take on the hanging themselves, and sell off part of the rope as really more than is strictly needed to carry out the task.

Capitalist utopianism, it might be mentioned, was beautifully summarised by Joe Hill in his song The Preacher and the Slave:

You will eat by and by
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.