June 11, 2020 Reading Time: 7 minutes
shenanigans, a pub

For those unfamiliar with South Park Season 2, Episode 13, to call shenanigans is to publicly accuse someone of rigging a game. In the South Park case, a carnie rigged a game so that no players could win unless he wanted them to. In our case, the government rigged the response to COVID-19. Until La FOIA Grande, it will remain unclear exactly who did the rigging or why, but the how is now crystal clear — faulty logic.

Somehow, the fact that scientists did not know everything about the virus became that they did not know anything about it. They even called it the “novel” coronavirus, as if it came from outer space or arose sui generis, although it is just the most recent iteration of a whole family of viruses that have been studied for decades. They could and should have known that a vaccine is unnecessary, that infected people develop immunity (or die), and that it spreads mostly through droplets spewed forth by people with respiratory symptoms. 

That faulty sense of uncertainty was used to take extreme and untried measures to slow the virus’s spread under what is called the precautionary principle, or the notion that it is better to be “safe than sorry,” which was taken to mean that governments had to do something. But if scientists truly knew nothing about SARS-COV-2 then they should have advocated doing nothing until it was well enough understood to proffer effective policies lest they inadvertently contribute to its spread.

Yet for some stupid or evil reason, policymakers privileged the precautionary principle over the core of the Hippocratic Oath, which is to “do no harm.” That precept also militates against taking extreme policy measures certain to cause significant harm to public health, as the economic lockdowns implemented in most countries and most U.S. states were bound to do, especially if maintained for an extended period.

A surgeon who amputated a leg because it might get infected by a pathogen that might quickly spread throughout the patient’s body would have her medical license revoked immediately. The policymakers who followed that same illogic should suffer the same fate.

In the aforementioned episode of South Park, Officer Barbrady makes clear that calling shenanigans is not a behavior to be undertaken lightly. Although an outspoken critic of governmental responses to the COVID-19 panic, I have thus far refrained from directly impugning our policymakers, who it seemed had merely made poor decisions in difficult circumstances. I can do so no longer because the only conclusion consistent with available evidence is that most of America’s policymakers are either lying about COVID-19 or they are irrational. In either case, they need to be removed from office at the earliest opportunity using any and all lawful means.

Those protesting George Floyd’s death have essentially called shenanigans on major police departments nationwide and earnestly seek change. In the process, they have brought many of us to the same conclusion; our law enforcement leaders are either liars or stupid. The most stunning revelation is that chokeholds are acceptable police tactics in many cities. What was the tagline for that one? “When your authority as a police officer, experience at deescalation, baton, taser, handcuffs, backup officers, and Glock 9 are not enough, go ahead and choke a bitch.”

COVID-19 presents a much more nuanced example of state overreach because it is an unseen foe and surprisingly undetectable. That is because it is more a scientific construct than a “thing.” It is a bit of RNA (ribonucleic acid, which is kinda sorta similar to DNA) that evolved, by means of natural selection, from another bit of RNA. It was always genetically heterogeneous and has continued to evolve. A new strain, palpably less virulent than the one from Wuhan, China may have already evolved in Italy. That would not be surprising because less virulent variants are more likely to spread than deadlier ones as deceased hosts don’t cough, sneeze, or otherwise spray viruses around.

The species boundaries of extant sexually-reproducing organisms are subject to a real world test — if a male and female can produce offspring that can also successfully reproduce then the parents are from the same species. If they cannot produce any live offspring they are from different species. And if their mating produces a live but infertile offspring, they are members of different species that are in the process of speciation, of becoming genetically isolated groups in other words.

There is no similar objective test for viruses, which induce host cells to replicate them. So scientists cannot reject the hypothesis that there existed a COVID-18, 17, 16, and so forth, perhaps all the way back to a COVID-10,000BCE, induced by precursors of the SARS-COV-2 virus that human immune systems fought off without vaccines, hydroxychloroquine, or ventilators. Surely, some individuals succumbed to these earlier COVIDs and are buried in the catch-all respiratory ailment in the cause-of-death statistics. Millions of others, though, were infected and survived, many without any symptoms at all because they had already been infected by earlier versions and thereby developed some antibody immunity to similar coronaviruses.

We can never know the details of the earlier coronavirus pandemics because nobody bothered to develop any tests. There was no need to because scientists understood that viruses do not wipe out host species, they co-evolve with them. As The Atlantic pointed out in 2016, a truly scary contagious disease has two main attributes: “First, it would have to be so unfamiliar that no existing therapy or vaccine could be applied to it. Second, it would need to have a high and surreptitious transmissibility before symptoms occur.”

Public health officials and mainstream media touted both of those notions for months but both turned out to be not just incorrect but knowably so right from the start of the pandemic.

What is truly novel about SARS-COV-2 is that governments decided to try to make it “legible,” in the sense that James C. Scott uses the term in his classic Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1999). In the process of trying to control the virus, the governments reified a process, turning an ever-evolving chunk of RNA into a “thing” so that its “experts” could count the infected and trace “the” virus’s spread.

Recall that the government insisted on developing its own tests for the presence of the virus. That is because to control the test for a virus, or anything really, is to control its defining attributes. This bit of RNA is SARS-COV-2, that one is not. This behavior is police brutality, that one is not. This child is autistic, that one is not. But the real world is messy and the coronavirus is not homogenous so testing for it turns out to be a sticky wicket indeed. Both active tests for the virus and serological tests for antibodies provide many false negative and false positive readings, perhaps twenty percent false negatives in the active tests, for a variety of reasons, including because they compare a sample to a single, static referent. 

Coronaviruses can kill you, as so many other things can, but the chances of it doing so are not very high, especially if you are not old or sickly. Two economists — yes, economists skilled in modeling and statistics, more skilled than your average epidemiologist it appears — have recently shown that the infection fatality rate (IFR) of that bit of RNA reified as the SARS-COV-2 virus must be much lower than most previous estimates. 

Their paper, which has been peer-reviewed and is due to be published by the Journal of Econometrics, explains why here. It is sophisticated stuff that I am not even going to begin to try to explain because the point is that policymakers could have/should have figured this out before using the coercive power of the state — and make no mistake the threat of revoking the occupational and business licenses of people who tried to reopen their flailing businesses in a last ditch attempt to save them is just as coercive as a chokehold (though less physically violent) — to shutter businesses in 45 states and the District of Columbia by unconstitutional fiat.

Note especially that the econometricians obtained their results solely by critiquing the rational parameters of the denominator, the number of people infected, and took the numerator, the number of deaths from COVID-19, as given. We know, however, that not all deaths attributed to COVID-19 were caused by the SARS-COV-2 virus. There might be some undercounting too but the death tolls related in the media are far from ironclad facts as it is too difficult to parse those who died “with” COVID-19 from those who died “of” it.

Some suggest that we get around that problem by tracking “excess” deaths, deaths greater than expected, but that conflates deaths from COVID-19 with deaths caused by the economic lockdowns. Suicides spiked and non-COVID patients were turned away from treatment or refused to enter COVID-19 cesspools. Most vexing of all, shelter-in-place orders reduced the effectiveness of our immune systems, rendering people more vulnerable to all sorts of contagious diseases.

But surely merely the invidious way that the virus spreads via surfaces and asymptomatic people created uncertainty enough to err on the side of caution and lock everyone up, right? One out of two isn’t bad. Well, it turns out that the World Health Organization has finally come clean — the “novel” coronavirus, like the many viruses before it, does NOT spread readily via contact or asymptomatic people. How people who do not appear sick and hence who are not coughing or sneezing or drooling all over others were spreading the virus has troubled me over the last few weeks. Yes, people spit when they talk but the virus resides primarily in the lungs and deep in the upper nasopharynx, which is why those hellaciously long swabs are necessary to test for it, even inaccurately at that.

In short, not only could COVID-19 been kicked in the can without lockdowns, a fact proven by the five free states, policymakers could have/should have known that the notion that the virus was surreptitiously spreading through casual contact was bogus. It spread mostly on subway trains, hospitals, and nursing homes by people who were symptomatic.

The optimal policy, therefore, would have been to warn against big indoor events and to create PSAs about hand washing and social distancing, incentives for people showing any respiratory systems to self-isolate until cleared through testing or loss of symptoms, and lazarettos for those suffering enough from COVID-19 to seek medical attention. As the most effective care was merely palliative and did not require ventilators or highly trained medical experts to assist, there was no need to “flatten the curve and raise the line” as there was no chance of hospitals being overrun and people dying needlessly, which ironically occurred due to the lockdowns.

So, again, it is not that policymakers were proven wrong in the face of a difficult situation; it is that they had the information necessary to respond rationally to the threat posed by a slightly evolved bit of RNA and yet did not do so for reasons still to be determined. 


Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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