Stories from America during COVID-19

Summary: America’s experience with COVID-19 provides powerful lessons for us about the world and especially about ourselves. With these we can become stronger.

The Professor on Gilligan's Island

Lessons about science from Gilligan’s Island!

The Professor on Gilligan’s Island was a master of all sciences. We’ve learned from climate change and now COVID-19 that’s not just fiction – as scientists with no relevant training or experience confidently make bold analysis about these issues. As if all that time spent on specialty training was unnecessary. Human nature at work: big statements about hot issues are the fast track to fame in America, and the press is more interested in clicks than validity. The IPCC’s work is boring, as is that of WHO and the CDC. Much more profitable for the news media to headline scientists with little relevant expertise predicting the end of the world.

Of course, in America everybody’s opinion is just as good as any expert’s. So the internet overflows with big conclusions about hot issues by people with little or no relevant training. COVID-19 has brought forth a bumper crop of these. They have numbers and graphs, so they must be worth reading! Especially by people with no ability to determine their validity. These people use a mish-mash of data from many sources, using widely different definitions, usually with gross errors in reasoning. WHO has repeatedly warned about these in their daily media briefings. My favorites are the graphs comparing the number of cases in nations of widely varying population and geographic size (e.g., comparing the number of cases in Singapore, Finland, and China) – chart junk.

In this article, science writer Tom Chivers gives a clear summary of the complexities in modeling an epidemic. Reading it makes clear why actual experts (who have reputations at risk, unlike amateurs seeking their 15 minutes) have been reluctant to make predictions until recently. And then only tentatively, as in this by Dr. Fauci on March 29.

“Looking at what we’re seeing now, I would say between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths. We’re going to have millions of cases. But I don’t think that we really need to make a projection, when it’s such a moving target, that you can so easily be wrong and mislead people.”

The worm of mistrust has eaten away at America

Strong social cohesion has long been one of America’s greatest strengths, carrying us through tough times such as the Great Depression and the social turmoil of 1965 – 1975. It helped keep oppressed groups loyal even when mistreated (African-Americans since the start, Japanese-American interned during WWII but many nonetheless served in the armed forces). For good reason e pluribus unum (one from many) was the national motto (as faith in God faded in America, Congress virtue signaled in 1956 by making “In God we trust” the motto.

That’s all burnt powder. Now identity politics fractures America, just as multiculturalism makes it difficult to assimilate the flood of new immigrants (as social scientists have warned for 20 years). Worse, our confidence in America’s institutions has been declining for five decades. For example, see the scary trends from Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions surveys (the exceptions are police and the military, scary news in a different way).

Worst of all, our mistrust of America’s institutions is rational. The Boy Scouts, the Roman Catholic Church, and uncounted numbers of other institutions have proven themselves unworthy of our trust (a young man recently died in a hazing incident in my chapter of my college fraternity). For more about this, see A new, dark picture of America’s future. As for our largest institution, government officials routinely lie to us about vital matters (see the Big List of their Lies).

Insight - AdobeStock-110764782
By pichetw, AdobeStock – 110764782.

Look to the future!

All of these problems are manageable during good times. The combination makes coping with a crisis like COVID-19 difficult. In almost every way, America was one of the best-prepared nations for an epidemic (details here). We had two months to prepare. The combination should have put us in a strong position when it hit hard in March. Instead, our institutions have repeatedly fumbled. Our response has been uncoordinated. Our leaders, especially Trump and Pence (head of the White House Task Force) have been often counter-productive (Pence is MIA).

In some way we see our weakness, and how other nations have handled COVID-19 better. Especially China. Our most frequent response shows what might be our greatest weakness: all evidence of China’s better response are met by screams of “China lies” or “China is evil” (for examples, see the comments on the FM website). A recent article in Science described China’s success suppressing COVID-19 and their progress beginning to restart their society: “Can China return to normalcy while keeping the coronavirus in check?” by Dennis Normile. We should watch and learn from them. It was pretty much ignored. My post describing it and other articles about China’s restart got the fewest hits of any in the past year. We can maintain our self-image as Number One only by closing our eyes. No amount of wealth and power can offset such self-destructive behavior.

Now America is mobilizing at every level to fight COVID-19. Our great resources are slowly focusing on ways to contain its spread, mitigate its damage, and eventually eradicate it. Now we should begin the long slow process of discovery. COVID-19 has revealed our weaknesses for all to see. Let’s dig deep to see how all this happened and how we can fix it. This is a Republic. It is our responsibility to fix it. There are no others who can or should do so.

It’s easy to follow the COVID-19 story

The World Health Organization provides daily information, from highly technical information to news for the general public. These are the best sources of information.

Also, see the wealth of information at the CDC website, especially their situation reports.

Posts about effects of COVID-19

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a powerful and disturbing story about “Birth of a Man of Steel …for the Soviet Union.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also, see these posts about epidemics…

  1. See the ugly cost of the next big flu pandemic. We can do more to prepare.
  2. Stratfor: The superbugs are coming. We have time to prepare.
  3. Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2009 swine flu in America.
  4. Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2015 ebola epidemic in America.
  5. ImportantA vaccine against the fears that make us weak.

A medieval city defeats a plague

Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City
Available at Amazon.

Florence Under Siege:
Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City

By John Henderson (2019), professor of Italian renaissance history at U of London.

I strongly recommend reading this fascinating review of it in the London Review of Books, with its great excerpts. From the publisher …

“Plague remains the paradigm against which reactions to many epidemics are often judged. Here, John Henderson examines how a major city fought, suffered, and survived the impact of plague. Going beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor, this book provides a nuanced and more compassionate interpretation of government policies in practice, by recreating the very human reactions and survival strategies of families and individuals.

“From the evocation of the overcrowded conditions in isolation hospitals to the splendor of religious processions, Henderson analyzes Florentine reactions within a wider European context to assess the effect of state policies on the city, street, and family. Writing in a vivid and approachable way, this book unearths the forgotten stories of doctors and administrators struggling to cope with the sick and dying, and of those who were left bereft and confused by the sudden loss of relatives.”


24 thoughts on “Stories from America during COVID-19”

  1. Very good work, as usual, Larry.

    My only quibble with your article is in its history. You stop looking back in the 1950’s (or the 1930’s in the case of the Great Depression). The US was very much a caste system based on skin color, native language, and money up until the early 1900’s. Immigrants, regardless of skin color, got the shortest end of the stick. That said, there was enough value to staying in the US that the immigrants did everything they could to validate their claim to being part of the social mix.

    The Civil War tested a lot of those issues but the country survived. The Civil War was mostly won because many recent immigrants to the North were willing to travel far from their new homes; risking disease, death in battle, and capture by angry Southerners to be viewed as having earned their citizenship.

    The US closed its borders to new major immigrant waves in the early 1900’s (starting roughly 1905-1920) and finally started moving towards its idea mix, which you correctly identified as peaking in the 1950’s.

    The articles below touch lightly on the topics I’ve discussed.

  2. John F Pittman

    Let’s stop the uneven thoughtfulness and end our part in the propaganda wars:

    From RealClearInvestigations (RCI): “There’s no question that since Beijing began implementing strict quarantine measures to fight the virus, the Chinese propaganda machine has been in full gear, praising the Communist Party and its paramount leader, Xi Jinping, for directing an effective response to the epidemic and presenting itself as a model for the rest of the world. The overall message is that, as always, when things get tough, the Communist Party and its leaders, and only they, can be counted on for national salvation.”

    One could easily change to Washington and Trump. This is what politicians of all stripes do.

    From RCI: “Still, skepticism about China’s no-new-local-infections claim is widespread, including, at least according to the anecdotal evidence, inside China. The doubt is fueled both by China’s Communist Party’s long history of propaganda and by the obvious benefits of changing the focus from the government’s initial efforts to suppress information about the coronavirus to its supposedly glorious victory over the disease crippling much of the world.”

    Well, LK has provided many examples of our government lying, and can anybody doubt that Trump and other politicians have claimed victory not theirs, or even non-existent.

    From RCI: ““A propaganda spokesman’s job is the turn messy facts into a clean narrative,” Andrew J. Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University and a leading China expert, said in an email. “China is trying to bury the embarrassment of the Covid-19 cover-up in a happy story of triumph over the virus.”

    This is Politics 101 and also Propaganda 101. But I want to express my opinion about the uneven thinking.

    Nathan is not WHO. Once we get rid of the political spin and propaganda, the real information is strict quarantine (cordon sanitaire) was done. The information both recent and historical is that cordon sanitaire brings epidemics under better control. So, is it reasonable that China went to zero? Absolutely not. Not because they are lying, like every other government does, but simply because there are carriers that are asymptomatic. Something the China bashers are using as a truth, but it is only a fact. So, let’s assume the Chinese are “lying” and the numbers are higher. What does it mean?

    Is this a mistake by China? It is not a political mistake. It will turn into medical mistake if the correct numbers are skewed by the Chinese. It will not be a large mistake. It is not even as large as the US mistake on insisting on their own test kit that didn’t work with corresponding numbers of unaccounted victims of the disease. It is definitely not as big as the fact that good test kits were not available worldwide. Note the lack of highlighting this fact in the propaganda wars. All the Chinese “lying” will change is another set of data that has to be adjusted. Typical of all large multi-national data sets.


    1. So, let’s assume the Chinese are “lying” and the numbers are higher. What does it mean?

      Let’s always assume that – say the problem is 10x worse than what the CCP was saying. That makes our response even more pitiful!

      1. John F Pittman

        Yes, Randolorian, if our and other governments KNEW the CCP was lying about the virus to the low side, then what does it mean for their lack of response.

        As LK, risk managers, and emergency response professionals will tell you, in a large scale emergency no one will have perfect information at the start and most likely not at the finish, as well. Besides the rule is report what you know, don’t speculate. Speculation is part of the after action report where one item is usually included. That item will be we need to do a better job of getting information and responses quicker, better, and more complete.

      2. John,

        Thank you for a rare note of rationality in these comments, as usual.

        One note about the claims that China underreported casualties of the virus: that would make their success even more impressive. But there is not point telling these people that. They’re just defending their image of America and no fact or logic will influence them.

    2. here in Italy, now we know for sure that dead are between two to four time of confirmed cases. in the first 3 weeks of march 2020 we have on 1084 municipality 16.216 dead, when the average in the 5 years 2015-2019 was around 8.000. at 21 of march know coronavirus dead for overall italy (all 7904 municipality) was 4825: around 3000 more death only in a fraction of the country.
      i don’t think that Lombardia autority (Milan region, the most hit and with the great discrepancy) plan to cover reality; what happen is that stress on the healthcare sistem are so high that who was tested before death and positive are counted as death for virus, who dead without test are not checked after. i suspect the same happen in Wuhan: in the central days of the crisis resources and time are concentrated on save lives.

      “So, is it reasonable that China went to zero? Absolutely not.” it’s reasonable but we need to wait two cycle (28 days) at zero to be sure.

      1. Paolo,

        “here in Italy, now we know for sure that dead are between two to four time of confirmed cases”

        How do you know that?

        “So, is it reasonable that China went to zero? Absolutely not.”

        It’s also innumeracy on stilts. China has 1.4 billion people. Estimates of the number of new cases are how many significant digits as a fraction of their population? Five digits would require tabulation by archangels. Most of the people writing this stuff – eagerly read by Westerners – are profoundly ignorant of any actual expertise.

        But we prefer exciting stories, not the boring reports from people with actual expertise. It’s what makes us natural peons.

      2. Larry “how do you know this” i put numbers above : you can think to another reason for 8000 dead above average with lockdown? (1048 municipality are not cherry picked: the others have not yet comunicate data to ISTAT). Estimate of from two to four time are made by “istituto cattaneo” report Is in italian but you can Google to check what”cattaneo”‘ is. Now i go to sleep, i work a lot more with lockdown, tomorrow i give you data for Lombardia municipality in bergamo-lodi-brescia districts: talk by himself.

  3. China is no poster child for humanitarianism… It kills its citizens by millions under its tyranny. And now we see media calls for democratic countries to have increased government tyranny???? How about self ownfership and determination… Sick people know they are sick and can isolate and report movements…not wait for officials to track them down. Healthy people can see sick people and ask them to self isolate and note movement’s. Why blame hindsight inaction on officialdom…… Just be truthful.

    1. If we didn’t have a ruling party whose dominant ideology has a big streak of “strip it, sell it for parts, and passively let judges reshape the legal environment for us” we would probably be looking a lot better. China has actually shown energy and leadership on this issue and will reap the fruits. But those grapes, no doubt, were sour anyway; and if they weren’t, they were certainly not OUR kind of grapes.

      1. SF,

        “If we didn’t have a ruling party whose dominant ideology has a big streak of “strip it”

        I don’t know where you live, but I’ve lived in five states. In none of them were guys with guns stationed at the voting booths.

        When Americans take responsibility for their own actions, we will be back on the path to prosperity. When we take responsibility for America, we will be on the path to again becoming a great nation.

        As it is, we’re going in the opposite direction.

    2. people sick for coronavirus not always know they are sick, in fact is more probably the opposite.
      here in italy 60 man, living in a small town near Milan, Castiglione D’ Adda, donate blood.
      40 have virus and no one on 40 know.
      Why blame? you want full list?

    3. “It kills its citizens by millions under its tyranny”
      What the hell are you talking about? You sound like an idiot ranting in the pub after 8 beers.

      1. Faxo,

        I used to reply to such comments like you did. But it’s ClownWorld. Talking rationally to Americans displays a lack of understanding of the situation. It’s a waste of effort.

        “When logic and proportion
        Have fallen sloppy dead
        And the White Knight is talking backwards
        And the Red Queen’s off with her head
        Remember what the Dormouse said”

        Americans don’t want to hear boring stuff from experts. Become famous by making stuff up. The bigger, the better. We’re clowns capering in the street.

        Our elites watch the festivities and smile, as this shows their superior fitness to rule America.

    4. Macha,

      I don’t know what you’re reading, but they’re lying to you.

      Most of the measures China took are those that the US is implementing now. The difference is that they did them fast, whereas we’re doing them slow.

      As for killing millions, that’s in the past. Along with the KKK in America, slaughter of the American Indians, etc.

      1. John F Pittman

        Randolorian, correct again. You need only read the title “The 2019-nCoV virus shows that we’ve built a better world.” LK was pointing out historically how bad epidemics of this sort were in the past. And we are doing much better. I don’t think China, CDC, and WHO efforts have been a failure.

        Besides as stated here and elsewhere, you take the potential mortality and the actual mortality to grade efforts. It is premature at this point to claim one way or the other. However, given the population of China, it appears that the world has at least three success stories in China, Japan, and Korea, already.

      2. Covidius Maximus

        The point is that making feel-good proclamations in the midst of an unfolding crisis is foolish. That’s true now and was certainly true in late January when Larry was writing his imbecilic takes that amounted to “it’s not gonna be the bubonic plague so we should be grateful”. Also, he completely missed the important aspects of the virus that others were covering at the exact same time:

        It’s novel. Ideas about mortality, transmission, rate, etc. are largely unknown. When trying to react to such an unknown, possibly devastating disasters, one should act on a precautionary principle not on some kind of historical average.
        Public health institutions and governments have failed in key capacities. The WHO did not act quickly enough. It was telling people in January not to wear masks. The US gov’s response has been shambolic both to the virus and the economic fallout from it. What is needed is critical analysis of and pressure on our institutions as they fail in the midst of this crisis.

      3. Covidius,

        ” Larry was writing his imbecilic takes that amounted to “it’s not gonna be the bubonic plague so we should be grateful”.

        While I appreciate you taking the time to make such idiotic statements, can you attempt to say something rational?

        As for that video, it’s wonderful for that guy to shoot his mouth off. But closing down the world economy based on the data of jan 24 would have been irresponsible. Even today there are hordes of loud voices saying that the current patchwork shutdowns are a gross overreaction. Policy-makers have to take actions based on available hard data. WHO gave loud warnings, and even their recommendations were mostly ignored by the West. The US and Europe began to react in early March, following WHO recommendations of late January.

  4. Scipio Africanus

    @Covidus Maximus,

    Agreed. The WHO is a more reliable source of information than tabloid-reading internet randos, yes, but they, along with the American CDC have consistently been behind the curve, reactive instead of proactive and helped contributed to the wide spread of this pandemic. Their failures are many. Claiming there was no person-to-person transmission, being too slow to declare a world health emergency, being too slow to declare a pandemic, not recommending closing down of flights from countries with outbreaks, not recommending that member countries begin production of protective equipment when it would have helped (e.g. by February at the latest), downplaying the effectiveness of masks, etc. They’ve done some things, right, of course, but they, like all large institutions, suffer from bureaucratic inertia and wishful thinking.

    In general a lot of the public health “experts” showed that they have their heads firmly in their fundaments. Apparently, many of them had been taught that quarantines and cordons sanitaire don’t work, despite the centuries of evidence showing that they do. Why? Well, they’re not “nice” so of course they must not work! And they might be racist, or at the least, “xenophobic.” Grab me my fainting couch! There was Boris Johnson’s team of intellectual-yet-idiots in the UK who took a super-sophisticated model they developed for Influenza, plugged in the new parameters and came up with the dumbest strategy ever. Then they realized they forgot to include a term for running out of ventilators, since Influenza doesn’t do that, and had to completely change course (after letting it spread unchecked for another week).

    Then you had people claiming that the most important thing was that nobody panic, because, you know, so far the disease has barely killed anyone compared to the flu. Well, that’s a bit like saying there’s no danger of the car driving off a cliff because so far we haven’t lost any altitude. The important death count is not at present, it’s in the future, and given the characteristics of this virus that became clear by the end of January it was obvious what the potential repercussions were if it escaped containment.

    What we needed was MORE panic, to scare the hell of out people in the West, because what has and will cause tens to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths was not panic, it was the opposite: complacency, disbelief and normalcy bias. The correct response was to be ringing the alarums loud and clear and long. That message has finally sunk in, but it’s taken far, far too many weeks. Yes, there are a lot of over-hyped threats. But that doesn’t mean that some of them are real.

    On the other hand, you have clear-eyed and intelligent amateurs who have been far ahead of the curve on this from the beginning: Dr. John Campbell, Dr. Gregory Cochran among others. And folks who have done a great job collating the most up-to-date and relevant research and presenting the implications in an easy to understand form, like Tomas Pueyo who took Greg Cochran’s insight of crushing the curve, helped it go viral, and finally got it through to policy makers, who previously had been focused on the idiotic strategy of Flatten The Curve because I guess they failed middle school algebra. Now there’s a chance for us, even though it’s going to be way, way worse in this country than it needed to be.

    1. Sciptio,

      “but they, along with the American CDC have consistently been behind the curve, reactive instead of proactive and helped contributed to the wide spread of this pandemic.”

      Please give some examples of that. And compare with the superduper institutions who have been more correct.

      In the real world, authorities react to data. Unlike TV shows, they can’t see the future and change the course of nations based on this prescient knowledge.

  5. John F Pittman

    Scipio and/or Covidius: You should post what was said and how/if it changed later. Yes, the WHO stated that they did not see certain vectors. You report what you know, not speculate. Later it was: may be spread. You report what you know, not speculate. Later it was: it is spreading. You report what you know, not speculate.

    Almost all complaints come from those who don’t read carefully. Those in the know such as WHO have been using caveats from day 1. The reason, as our host has repeatedly stated, is that the disease is new, and actual knowledge is limited.

    No one has forced persons not to voluntarily cordon sanitaire themselves. I did. I did not need to be panicked. I followed the reports especially WHO guidelines, and I have been holed up for a month now. Reading and listening carefully, I have not had a problem with WHO, CDC, or Larry. I have noted politicians are not a good source and several nation states have large outbreaks from lack of action. Other nation states haven’t.

    It is not like bubonic or like the rather closer in nature, 1918 Spanish flu. It has its own unique character.

    There are other misstatements I would point out, but the most egregious was not recognizing that Larry’s estimates were about following WHO guidelines. Yes, it would have been nice if they were followed. In countries that did, LK was spot on as far as such go. The estimate range at low infectious penetration count, such as your US example at the beginning of the spread, is by the best sources+/- an order of magnitude. Take your pick “COVID-19: Updated data implies that UK modelling hugely overestimates the expected death rates from infection” March 25 by Nic Lewis versus January for LK and nation states. Some persons are second guessing with better data. Or let’s look at the first video I found from Dr. John Campbell, January 26, 2020 where he states that this virus came from animals and the world recently found out it was spread human to human. His date was from the WHO based on what was determined in China. Interestingly, at the time of Dr. Campbell’s 1/26/2020, he states that it was not known, at the time, whether asymptomatic victims could spread the disease. He then tells what can happen IF it can be spread asymptomatically.

    Gentlemen, I think you need to quote exactly what was said and include sources, so a reasonable discussion can be had. Your comments without this contradict your sources.

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