Archive for July, 2020

The Lottery…

Shirley Jackson’s famous story – “The Lottery” – is a horror tale about how a town chooses who periodically gets killed for reasons they have long since forgotten. The victim protests that the choosing wasn’t fair, but to no avail.

Right now, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers feel the same way, particularly in states like Utah where school boards are planning face-to-face teaching, starting in two to three weeks, despite the fact that cases and death rates are climbing, not declining. One teacher protesting at the state capitol carried a sign proclaiming: I can teach from a distance. I can’t teach from a coffin.

Too much of the uproar about getting children back in school, face-to-face, concentrates first on the students and second on their parents needing to get back to work (and the economy). In making decisions about when face-to-face teaching will resume, almost no one is asking about the effect on teachers and whether the school systems have the resources to safely resume teaching.

Not only are the resources not there, but in most cases, traditional teaching can’t be resumed without a high risk of contagion. When professional athletic teams, with their millions of dollars, can’t resume even practicing without spreading the disease, just how are underfunded and overcrowded schools supposed to resume classes without spreading the coronavirus?

Add to that the fact that almost 30% of public school teachers are over age fifty and 17% [close to a fifth] are over fifty-five. In Utah, the majority of substitute teachers are retired full-time teachers. At the university level, nation-wide, the situation is even worse, with more than 35% of university faculty being over age fifty-five.

On top of all that, at least here in Utah, both secondary schools and universities are still talking about resuming fall football and basketball.

Welcome to the latest version of Jackson’s lottery.

Masks as Theatre ?

A recent blog comment claimed masks, especially cloth masks, were only “theatre.” That’s simply not true, and you can prove it yourself… but first a few basics.

A cough can travel as fast as 50 mph and expel almost 3,000 droplets in just one go. Sneezes can travel up to 100 mph and create upwards of 100,000 droplets. Several studies found that larger droplets [from someone not wearing a mask] easily carried for more than two meters and as far as six meters. Those droplets and aerosols can hang around for hours, and longer in poorly ventilated areas.

The British medical journal The Lancet recently released a meta-analysis on studies dealing with “person-to-person virus transmission.” Among the many findings was one that masks were an effective way to reduce transmission, since they function as an effective “source control” restricting the flow of droplets and aerosols.

This past July 16th, the CDC released a statement specifically addressing cloth face coverings, stating that they should be used, and that studies showed that they were effective in reducing the spread of Covid-19. Masks block direct airflow, which reduces the amount of virus expelled and the distance it can travel… and that reduces contagion.

And if you’re still skeptical… look at the world map. Places with high masking rates and social distancing are doing MUCH better than we are.

By themselves, masks aren’t a cure-all. They are rated at reducing the risk of virus transmission by roughly 70%, but many flu vaccines don’t do much better. Masks also have one other problem. My mask protects you twice as well as it protects me. In effect, my fate lies more in your hands than mine. Now, that’s always been true in every functioning society, but most people don’t see it or like to admit it. We are indeed our brother, or sister’s keeper.

And that’s a problem in a country where some 40% of the population believes a President whose operating maxim is effectively, “Me first, screw you.”

Now…for that personal proof. Hold your hand fully extended in front of your mouth. Cough, hard. If you’re reasonably healthy, you should be able to feel the airflow from your cough on your fingers. For most people that’s a distance of a little less than three feet. Put on a mask, and do it again. When I do it, and I have fairly strong lungs, I can’t feel any airflow through the mask [mine is cloth, with HEPA filter inserts]. Some airflow will escape through the edges of the mask, but any aerosols or droplets emitted will stay close to the body, and combined with social distancing and adequate ventilation, will effectively protect others.

As for masks being theatre… that’s not quite true. Wearing a mask isn’t theatre, but not wearing one is… and it’s called tragedy.

Doing the Right Thing

“Americans can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having first exhausted all other possible alternatives.”

This quote has often been attributed to Winston Churchill, but there’s no evidence Churchill ever said or wrote it, although one of his biographers suspected that he felt that way, and, historically, the U.S. has certainly acted in that fashion.

A number of the Founding Fathers felt slavery was wrong and should not have been allowed, but, because they allowed it, the result was the prolongation of a barbaric practice, followed by a Civil War, and another 150 years of suffering. At some point, we might actually get around to finishing doing the right thing.

The same could be said of the right to vote for women, and equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender. Or our failure to confront Hitler when it wouldn’t have cost so many millions of lives. It took rivers actually catching fire and air pollution killing people before the U.S. would enact environmental protection legislation. The carcinogenic effects of smoking tobacco were first noticed in 1912, and definitely established by the late 1930s, but the tobacco industry was disputing that evidence well into the 1960s. There are numerous other examples as well, such as automobile seatbelts and lead in paint and gasoline.

And now we have another – the fact that masks definitely reduce the spread and the fatality level from Covid-19. What’s key about this is that the greatest effect of masks is that of keeping the wearer from spreading the contagion.The medical and health professionals can and have documented this, but the President and many state governors won’t mandate masks, and because masks are inconvenient and uncomfortable, all too many people won’t wear them unless they’re mandated.

And, once again, we’re not only not doing what’s right, but adopting strategies that are demonstrably incorrect and dangerous, and which will cause tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of permanent health damage.

And people wonder why there’s a trend toward authoritarian governance [even though it has an even worse record than democracy]?

Selfishness/Stupidity and Covid-19

Here in Utah, the majority of people are effectively refusing to social distance and to wear masks. National Parks are heavily visited, if not with the huge crowds of last year, and people visiting them aren’t really social distancing or wearing masks. I suspect that this pattern is true in many other states as well. Our governor has mandated masks for anyone in government buildings, for employees of any business serving the public, for anyone in all healthcare facilities, and for all students, teachers, and educational employees.

At first glance that sounds fairly restrictive, except that it means that patrons of restaurants and businesses don’t have to wear masks, nor does anyone in public spaces. And while major chain stores are now requiring masks, most have quietly indicated that they won’t risk employee lives to enforce that requirement. The result is that less than ten percent of the population here is wearing a mask, except when absolutely required to do so.

Unless people change, and they’re showing no sign of doing so, or unless government cracks down, and it shows no sign of doing so, Covid-19 cases and fatalities are going to continue to climb.

Even as case numbers are rising, because of economic and social pressure, the state plans to open all schools and universities in September, and the local university is touting that it will have football and basketball as well.

Early studies indicate that while young children [under 8] have a very low risk of contracting Covid-19, they can still be carriers. Older students, particularly teenagers and young adults, have a much higher chance of contracting it and carrying it, especially asymptomatically, and with high numbers of cases in the state, there’s no way that some students won’t carry it into the classroom.

This problem could be handled… if caseloads were low and declining, but they’re not.

What tends to be overlooked in this back-to-school rush is that, first, teachers have families, and those families include vulnerable individuals. Second, a significant number of teachers, particularly university faculty, fall into the “grandparent” category. Third, studies show that teenagers and young adults are among the worse at hygiene and social distancing, particularly over time. Fourth, schools and universities draw students from such a variety of backgrounds that those students are bound to include those carrying Covid-19 asymptomatically or otherwise. Fifth, so far at least, there are absolutely no screening processes for students in place. Sixth, disinfecting and maintaining hygienic conditions is expensive, and thus far on the university level, class-to-class disinfecting is yet another burden being placed on faculty.

Under these circumstances, at least here in Utah, I can see Covid-19 taking out, either temporarily or permanently, a significant number of teachers. And everyone is ignoring this almost inevitable result, except for teachers, who are extremely worried, worried enough that some are retiring or resigning.

And, unless matters change, because too many people are self-centered, and won’t take precautions, teachers, once again, in yet another way, are the ones who will pay for that combination of stupidity and selfishness.

Race or Rage?

When I looked at the cover of the latest edition of the Economist the other day, the illustration held a large single word, in a black and white pattern, which I initially read as “Rage,” along with a few other words saying it was the new ideology and that there was something wrong with it.

My first thought was that rage was definitely a real problem here in the United States, but belatedly I realized that that large single word was “Race.”

In fact, both rage and race are huge problems in the U.S. and, for the most part, from what I see, the people who are the most opposed to resolving the issues around race are largely the same ones who are showing the most rage, although there are also those extremists on the left who also carry a fair amount of rage.

When employees of stores are assaulted and in some cases killed for requiring customers to wear masks, it’s more than an issue of public health. Nor is it a question of civil rights, because everyone is being required to wear a mask, but rage at having to comply with a standard they see, not as a public health measure, but as a restriction on their ability to go where they want to do dressed the way they want to dress. In short, they don’t give a damn about the health of others.

Those who loot out of rage in demonstrations about race aren’t addressing the lack of civil rights, but committing a crime under the cover of civil rights. They also don’t give a damn about others.

Where I live there’s a great deal of anger against the restrictions required to combat Covid-19, yet we’ve never had the absolute lock-downs required elsewhere. Not surprisingly, case numbers are climbing here, yet the opposition to masks and social distancing is also rising. The Mothers Against Masks broke into a school board meeting the other day, opposing any mask requirements for their children in education. I still can’t understand their rationale. Yes, children are less vulnerable, but they’re far from invulnerable, and they can certainly carry the virus to others more vulnerable.

At the same time, governors – and the President – have been reluctant to mandate masks, again I believe, because of the rage and anger it creates.

Minorities are vulnerable to economic and social discrimination that makes it more difficult for them to improve their lives, but when they protest, it’s often in anger against injustice, and it is a form of rage against long-standing unfairness. Yet their rage and the reasons for that rage have been largely ignored for generations. At the same time, blind rage against that continuing oppression just strengthens those who oppose social change.

Rage against oppression is at least understandable, if misguided, because seldom are those who suffer the effects of riots and looting the ones responsible for continuing oppression. Rage against public health standards is another matter, particularly since it’s self-centered and indulgent, badly rationalized, and, in the end, hurts everyone, particularly the vulnerable, especially poor minorities.

In either case, rage doesn’t fix public health or oppression.

The Danger of Expectations

Strictly in my opinion, one of the biggest reasons why the current coronavirus epidemic has resulted in so many unnecessary deaths is that this particular virus goes against medical and social expectations, as well as the “rules” of past epidemics. Part of those expectations also arose from the fact that we have vaccines and treatments for a score of diseases that once killed millions, and most Americans still can’t grasp the idea that this disease is a large-scale killer, because that goes against the societal expectations, even though those expectations have only been in place for little more than a generation.

While the effects and the mortality from Covid-19 generally increase with the age of those infected, its manifestations in those infected vary, seemingly from being symptomatically undetectable to being lethal, and lethal effects strike every age range, with the result that even young adults and even a few children have died.

Initially, the virus seemed to target the respiratory system almost exclusively and appeared to propagate primarily by contact. It now appears that, depending on the victim, it can affect a much wider range of bodily functions and systems, and a wide range of factors can affect how susceptible an individual is, regardless of age.

Recent research now appears to confirm that airborne droplets and aerosols are also a significant source of infection, something that the World Health Organization largely dismissed as a possibility until recent studies indicated the contrary.

Once the virus has a large presence in a population, it becomes exceedingly difficult to trace because so many of those infected are asymptomatic, and even those who do eventually show symptoms are contagious for days before symptoms appear.

All of the early misconceptions and the uncertainty and variability of infection basically created a feeling that Covid-19 was essentially an “old people’s” disease and that it would pass quickly. Even when it didn’t, and the data indicated that the virus was still a problem, states relaxed precautions, and opened up early. Almost immediately, younger adults started back to a “normal” life and became much more casual about taking precautions. And most states, and certainly the White House, ignored the possibility of silent contagion…and now the numbers of cases across the south and west have skyrocketed… and higher death rates will follow.

Which is another reason why it’s a good idea to follow the data… especially when that data indicates that “the rules” and expectations aren’t working.

What Don’t You Get?

A little more than twenty years ago, David Brin wrote a book entitled The Transparent Society, which, interestingly enough, suggested that the best way to fight the misuse of information technology was not to restrict information but to make it more widely available.

Since the book was published, between the growth of surveillance systems, the near-ubiquity of camera cell phones, and the spread of social media and the internet, it’s getting more and more difficult for most of us to hide anything [except financial shenanigans governed by algorithms, but that’s another story].

One of the reasons the Black Lives Matter movement has gained support is that people with cell phones and non-police surveillance systems have documented too many police abuses of power and spread them across the internet. Although those in the minority communities have known and complained about such behavior for decades, if not centuries, now that such events have been captured in living [and often dying] color, it becomes harder and harder for the law enforcement community to ignore or brush off those complaints about brutality and excessive force.

On a related front, while the Me Too movement was actually founded in 2006 as an effort to combat sexual harassment and abuse of women, it took off virally in social media after the exposure of the widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein in early October 2017. Here, too, the use of the internet has uncovered more than a few cases of gender harassment and sexual abuse, mainly of women, but also of men, and those of other sexual/gender orientations.

With the continuing expansion and accessibility of personal communications, this trend of what could be called “guerilla openness” is not only going to continue, but will likely expand, although more restrictive regimes, such as China, will definitely try to repress it.

Here in the United States, however, socially enforced openness is here to stay, and like most technological tools, it has its upsides and downsides. The downside is that false news, incorrect or inaccurate information can easily be spread and can destroy the reputation and sometimes the lives of innocents. The upside is that institutional and personal abuse and wrong-doing are harder and harder to conceal.

All of which brings up questions. What don’t corrupt cops get? With cell phone cameras possibly everywhere, and the increasing requirements for bodycams, just how long do they think they can continue to get away with brutality and abuse? The same questions apply to sexual harassers and abusers, particularly those in high places.

Because in a world where information – accurate and inaccurate – flows everywhere, before long there may not be that many places to hide… for better and worse.

If You Don’t See It…

In person and with your own eyes, it doesn’t exist. From where I sit in the semi-rural, very arid, mountain west, that seems to be the prevalent attitude about Covid-19…and more than a few other matters.

There’s no need for masks, unless maybe you’re old and decrepit, and social distancing? What’s that? No need of that any more, is there?

For most of the current Covid-19 pandemic, we haven’t seen many cases. Most people here don’t even know someone who’s had it. But now Covid-19 is beginning to creep, and even leap, into southwestern Utah. But I don’t see many masks, or much social distancing.

I do happen to wear a mask when I go out, and gloves. As a former Navy pilot, my feelings tell me nothing’s going to happen to me if I don’t, but I’m intelligent enough to know that sometimes feelings are wrong. That’s why I wear a mask, one with filters in it. In ninety degree heat, it’s not particularly comfortable, either.

In the statistical world, there’s a term that very much applies to Covid-19, and that term is “low probability, high impact.” It applies very much to the current coronavirus. Most healthy people without comorbidities won’t suffer much if they get Covid-19, but that’s far from absolute. But if you happen to draw the short straw… Death is definitely a high impact effect, even if it’s low probability for those under thirty.

Recent studies show that 4% of adults in their 20s who get Covid-19 will require hospitalization. That’s four out of a hundred, and that hospitalization will likely last weeks, and it will be expensive. Now, four out of a hundred doesn’t sound too bad, but, in California over 40% of the new cases are young adults, and as I write this, yesterday California had almost 6,500 new cases, of which 260 young adults will likely require hospitalization, and three will likely die. Those numbers are just for one day, and since hospitalization lasts several weeks, if those numbers continue, just the young adults will require another 4,000 beds, more if their hospitalization lasts more than two weeks.

In some southern states, over half of all new cases are people under 30, and those are just the diagnosed cases.

And, unfortunately, death from Covid-19 isn’t so low a probability for older Americans. More than 80% of Covid-19 deaths have occurred in people over 65, and most of those cases originated through infection from much younger people.

Besides the fact that not taking precautions (like wearing a mask, handwashing, and social distancing) could literally result in the death of more vulnerable others, it could also have a rather negative effect on younger, supposedly more resistant people. That’s because the other 20% of deaths have been adults between 18 and 64, and those deaths are roughly spread evenly across ages.

Most people wear seatbelts because automobile accidents are another variety of low probability/high impact personal disaster, and that disaster can also affect others, just like Covid-19. Only self-centered idiots refuse to use seatbelts.

The same can be said of those who refuse to wear masks in public spaces.

“We’re All in This Together”

I’ve seen and heard those words too many times in my life, most recently from a university president explaining why he was choosing to endanger faculty and students by deciding to have an in-person commencement in a month and to open classes in two, despite being in a state where the numbers of new coronavirus cases are at an all-time high and seem likely to go higher.

In a general sense, those words are accurate. If an institution, group, or country faces a problem, it’s likely to affect all those in whatever group is being addressed either directly or indirectly. I’ll grant that.

But what such rhetoric ignores or talks past is that, more often than not, the problem affects those whom the speaker addresses far more than it does the speaker. In the instance above, the university president faces a far smaller risk from Covid-19 than do the professors, instructors, and staff dealing with students. And in terms of age and medical conditions, the faculty and staff face a greater risk than do the students.

If a general or admiral says words like those about a coming military action, they’re unlikely to be the ones wounded or dying. The president of a large public company faced with hard times and possibly failing will certainly come out of a failure better than the vast majority of his employees, and if he turns the company around, he’ll definitely fare better than his employees.

I’ve seldom heard those words from really good leaders, and then usually when that leader was actually in a position similar to those he addressed, but more than a few times from those whose leadership is suspect. Maybe that’s just my experience, but I’ve been in more sectors of the economy, including business, government, and the military, and seen more geographically than most people.

To me, the phrase “We’re all in this together” is all too often an attempt to suggest that everyone shares the burden and the risk equally, to which I’d say in the words of another hackneyed phrase, “Tell me it ain’t so, Joe.”