We’ve lived through the most bizarre experience of human folly in my lifetime, and perhaps in generations. Among the strangest aspects of this has been the near universal failure on the part of regular people, and even the appointed “experts” (the ones the government employs, in any case), to have internalized anything about the basics of viruses that my mother understands, thanks to her mother before who had a solid education in the subject after World War II.
Thus, for example, are all governments ready to impose new lockdowns should the infection data turn in the other direction. Under what theory, precisely, is this supposed to help matters? How does reimposing stay-home orders or mandating gym closures mysteriously manage to intimidate a virus into going away? “Run away and hide” seems to have replaced anything like a sophisticated understanding of viruses and immunities.
So I decided to download Molecular and Cell Biology for Dummies just to check if I’m crazy. I’m pleased to see that it clearly states that there are only two ways to defeat a virus: natural immunity and vaccines.
The book completely left out the option that almost the entire world embraced in March: destroy businesses, force everyone to hide in their homes, and make sure that no one gets close to anyone else. The reason that the text leaves that out is that the idea is essentially ridiculous, so much so that it was initially sold as a strategy to preserve hospital space and only later mutated into a general principle that the way to beat a virus is to avoid people and wear a mini-hazmat suit.
Here is the passage:
For all of recorded history, humans have done a deadly dance with viruses. Measles, smallpox, polio, and influenza viruses changed the course of human history: Measles and smallpox killed hundreds of thousands of Native Americans; polio killed and crippled people, including US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and the 1918 influenza epidemic killed more people than were killed during all of World War I.
For most viruses that attack humans, your only defenses are prevention and your own immune systems. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses, and scientists haven’t discovered many effective antiviral drugs.
Vaccines are little pieces of bacteria or viruses injected into the body to give the immune system an education. They work by ramping up your own defensive system so that you’re ready to fight the bacteria or virus upon first contact, without becoming sick first. However, for some viral diseases no vaccines exist, and the only option is to wait uncomfortably for your immune system to win the battle.
A virus is not a miasma, a cootie, or red goo like in the children’s book Cat in The Hat. There is no path toward waging much less winning a national war against a virus. It cares nothing about borders, executive orders, and titles. A virus is a thing to battle one immune system at a time, and our bodies have evolved to be suited to do just that. Vaccines can give advantage to the immune system through a clever hack. Even so, there will always be another virus and another battle, and so it’s been for hundreds of thousands of years.
If you read the above carefully, you now know more than you would know from watching 50 TED talks on viruses by Bill Gates. Though having thrown hundreds of millions of dollars into cobbling together some global plan to combat microbes, his own understanding seems not to have risen above a cooties theory of run away and hide.
There is another level of virus comprehension that came to be observed in the 1950s and then codified in the 70s. For many viruses, not everyone has to catch them to become immune and not everyone needs a vaccine if there is one. Immunity is achieved when a certain percentage of the population has contracted some form of virus, with symptoms or without, and then the virus effectively dies.
This has important implications because it means that vulnerable demographics can isolate for the active days of the virus, and return to normal life once “herd immunity” has been realized with infection within some portion of the non-vulnerable population. This is why every bit of medical advice for elderly people has been to avoid large crowds during the flu season and why getting and recovering for non-vulnerable groups is a good thing.
What you get from this virus advice is not fear but calm management. This wisdom – not ignorance but wisdom – was behind the do-no-harm approach to the polio epidemic of 1949-1952, the Asian flu of 1957-58, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69. Donald Henderson summed up this old wisdom beautifully: “Communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted.”
And that’s what we did for the one hundred years following the catastrophic Spanish flu of 1918. We never again attempted widespread closures or lockdown precisely because they had failed so miserably in the few places they were attempted.
The cooties theory attempted a comeback with the Swine flu of 2009 (H1N1) but the world was too busy dealing with a financial crisis so the postwar strategy of virus control and mitigation prevailed once again, thankfully. But then the perfect storm hit in 2020 and a new generation of virus mitigators got their chance to conduct a grand social experiment based on computer modeling and forecasting.
Next thing you know, we had this new vocabulary shoved down our throats and we all had to obey strangely arbitrary exhortations. “Go inside! No, wait don’t go inside!” “Stay healthy but shut the gyms!” “Get away from the virus but don’t travel!” “Don’t wear a mask, wait, do wear a mask!” (Now we can add: “Only gather in groups if you are protesting Trump”)
People started believing crazy things, as if we are medieval peasants, such as that if there is a group of people or if you stand too close to someone, the bad virus will spontaneously appear and you will get infected. Or that you could be a secret superspreader even if you have no symptoms, and also you can get the virus by touching almost anything.
Good grief, the sheer amount of unscientific phony baloney unleashed in these terrible three months boggles the mind. But that’s what happens in any panic. Apparently.
Now, something has truly been bugging me these months as I’ve watched the incredible unravelling of most of the freedoms we’ve long taken for granted. People were locked out of the churches and schools, businesses were shuttered, markets were closed, governors shoved through shelter in place orders meant not for disease control but aerial bomb raids, and masks were mandatory, all while regular people who otherwise seem smart hopped around each other like grasshoppers.
My major shock is discovering how much sheer stupidity exists in the population, particularly among the political class.
Forgive a defense of my use of the term “stupid” but it is technically correct. I take it from Albert Camus and his brilliant book The Plague (1947). “When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But though a war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.”
Indeed it is true.
It was only last February when we seemed smart. We had amazing technology, movies on demand, a smartphone in our pockets to communicate with everyone and reveal all the world’s knowledge. There was peace more or less. There was prosperity. There was progress. Our medical systems worked. It seemed that only a few months ago, we had it all together. We seemed smart. Until suddenly stupid took over, or so it seemed.
Actually we weren’t smart as individuals. Our politicians were as dumb as they ever have been, and massive ignorance pervaded the population, then as always. What was smart last February was society and the processes that made society work in the good old days.
Consider the social analytics of F.A. Hayek. His major theme is that the workings of the social order require knowledge and intelligence, but none of this essential knowledge subsists within any individual mind much less any political leader. The knowledge and intelligence necessary for society to thrive is instead decentralized throughout society, and comes to be embedded or instantiated within institutions and processes that gradually evolve from the free actions and choices of individuals.
What are those institutions? Market prices, supply chains, observations we make from the successful or unsuccessful choices of others that inform our habits and movements, manners and mores that work as social signals, interest rates that carefully coordinate the flow of money with our time preferences and risk tolerances, and even morals that govern our treatment of each other. All these come together to create a form of social intelligence that resides not in individual minds but rather the process of social evolution itself.
The trouble is that a well-functioning society can create an illusion that it all happens not because of the process but rather because we are so damn smart or maybe we have wise leaders with a good plan. It seems like it must be so, else how could we have become so good at what we do? Hayek’s main point is that it is a mistake to credit individual intelligence or knowledge, much less good governments with brainy leaders, with civilizational achievements; rather, the real credit belongs to institutions and processes that no one in particular controls.
“To understand our civilisation,” Hayek writes, “one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection — the comparative increase of population and wealth — of those groups that happened to follow them.”
The lockdowns took a sledgehammer to these practices, processes, and institutions. It replaced them nearly overnight with new bureaucratic and police-state mandates that herded us into our homes and arbitrarily assigned new categories: elective vs non-elective medical procedures, essential vs nonessential business, permissible vs. impermissible forms of association, even to the point of measuring the distance from which we must be separated one from another. And just like that, via executive order, many of the institutions and processes were crushed under the boot of the political class.
What emerged to take its place? It’s sad to say but the answer is widespread ignorance. Despite having access to all the world’s knowledge in our pockets, vast numbers of politicians and regular people defaulted back to a premodern cognition of disease. People did this out of fear, and were suddenly and strangely acquiescent to political commands. I’ve had friends tell me that they were guilty of this back in the day, believing that mass death was imminent so the only thing to do was to shelter in place and comply with the edicts.
The seeming intelligence that we had only in February suddenly seemed to turn to mush. A better way to understand this is all our smartest institutions and practices were crushed, leaving only raw stupidity in its place.
Truth is that we as individuals are probably not much smarter than our ancestors; the reason we’ve made so much progress is due to the increasing sophistication of Hayek’s extended orders of association, signalling, capital accumulation, and technological know how, none of which are due to wise leaders in government and industry but are rather attributable to the wisdom of the institutions we’ve gradually built over decades, centuries, and a millennia.
Take those away and you reveal what we don’t really want to see.
Looking back, I’m very impressed at the knowledge and awareness that the postwar generation had toward disease mitigation. It was taught in the schools, handed down to several generations, and practiced in journalism and public affairs. That was smart. Something happened in the 21st century to cause a kind of breakage in that medical knowledge chain, and thus did societies around the world become vulnerable in the presence of a new virus to rule by charlatans, hucksters, media howlers, and would-be dictators.
With lockdown finally easing, we will see the return of what seems to be smart societies, and the gradual loss of the influence of stupid. But let us not deceive ourselves. It could be that we’ve learned nothing from the fiasco that unfolded before our eyes. If economies come to be restored, eventually, to their former selves, it will not be because we or our leaders somehow beat a virus. The virus outsmarted everyone. What will fix what the political class has broken is the freedom once again to piece back together the institutions and processes that create the extended order that makes us all feel smarter than we really are.