How all-too-human scientists have opened the door to pandemics—and worse.
Biosecurity’s Faustian Bargains (Part II)
Defective standards in social distancing.
In the previous part of this series, I addressed the origin of the coronavirus and errors in following biosafety protocols.
Most people who criticize the quarantine are doing it for the wrong reasons. In fact, they were the ones who caused this mess by not taking the problem seriously early enough. If they didn’t complain about “fear mongering” or “racism” back in January and February, we could have done something similar to Taiwan and Mongolia and suffered minimum losses of both jobs and lives. Taiwan’s government took the epidemic seriously before anyone else; they began taking effective actions against COVID-19 on December 31, 2019. Taiwan only has 382 confirmed cases and six deaths from COVID-19 as of April 10, 2020. Mongolia simply closed its land and air borders with China on January 27, 2020, and didn’t get its first case until a Frenchman arrived on March 10. So far, there have been only 16 cases and 0 deaths in Mongolia.
In February, weeks before the lockdown in the U.S., I tweeted:
You thought that in an apocalyptic situation you’ll get to use your guns and LARP as a hero or a pirate.
No. You’ll just be forced to stay home, eat Cheetos, and play video games all day by the government indefinitely.
We’re not prepping for the same type of hell.
— Mimetic Contagion (@MimeticValue) February 27, 2020
At that time, most Americans and Europeans still thought that COVID-19 was contained in China and wouldn’t spread significantly internationally. Very few others anticipated that a Chinese-style lockdown could happen in Western democratic countries. I knew things would turn out bad because most Americans thought, “it’s just the flu.” While Americans were engaging in completely pointless debates about death prediction models (all models are wrong; you don’t need a model to tell the threat is significant), the Taiwanese and Mongolians simply applied the precautionary principle. Dependence on models and projections leads to fatalism and inaction. It’s clear that underestimating the severity of a disease amplifies the aggregate harm (deaths + economic losses + other externalities) of an epidemic by magnitudes. Like Nassim Taleb said, if we had spent pennies ahead of time, we wouldn’t be spending trillions today.
Choosing between the economy or saving lives is a false dichotomy. Taiwan and Mongolia didn’t bother with death projections; they just saw something SARS-like coming and took the preventative measures early. Because they acted early, only a few people needed to voluntarily self-quarantine. State-mandated house arrest of the general public (better known by the euphemisms of shelter-in-place and quarantine) was a last-resort solution for countries that acted too late.
There was neither dismissal of the danger of the virus nor mass panic in Taiwan or Mongolia. The Taiwanese stock market did drop, but only because the global economy is completely interdependent and intercorrelated. Their economy did not shut down as it did in China, Europe, and the United States. Blame everyone who said “it’s just the flu” back in February and January, because if they had acknowledged the severity of the disease back then, we could have been like Taiwan and Mongolia and avoided both the economic shutdown and the deaths.
The mainstream media sucks. Not because they were “fear mongering about a fake virus,” but because they were too late in comprehending the severity of a pandemic threat. Fear isn’t the mind killer. Mind is the fear killer. To flank fear, panic, and loss, we must take the path of wisdom and preparation. Important lessons from The Art of War: Don’t underestimate your enemy, know yourself, and know your enemy. When you embody the virtue of prudence, you won’t be caught with your pants down.
Our response to the virus has not been prudent, because we understood neither freedom nor social distancing. Because of this, Americans are both dying of the virus and under indefinite house arrest. We could end the house arrest of the general public without sacrificing more lives if we get creative. We must never forget that while the lockdown is necessary for now, it must never become the standard protocol for dealing with pandemics. We only had to mass quarantine because the officials failed to enact lighter measures early enough.
It’s crazy to me that mothers who take their children to the playground are being arrested and skateboard parks are being filled with sand. Yet when people protest against the lockdown, this isn’t what they are protesting. They (or perhaps whoever sponsored the astroturfing) are upset that their favorite fast food chains are closing their dining rooms and that Disney World is closed. The protestors don’t want real freedom outside; they want to satisfy their consumerist addictions. We should not give up our freedoms, but a sudden, indiscriminate abandoning of the lockdown strategy is foolish. It would mean that we paid the economic price without solving the problem of the virus.
Enjoying real freedom outside is completely different from throwing a fit at a rally while demanding the freedom to consume a bunch of luxury products. People should be allowed to engage in any outdoor activities as long as they wear masks and keep distance from each other. The virus isn’t everywhere outside, it’s in human bodies. In fact, sunlight is a disinfectant and it also boosts vitamin D production, which supports a healthy immune system. However, people would rather have the freedom to consume fast foods that harm their immune systems. If we hired people to coat commonly touched surfaces in copper, and disinfect playgrounds and parks at regular intervals, we could create new jobs while increasing the level of freedom without sacrificing safety.
Conservatives love to consider America a “Christian Nation,” but I question this. I am reminded of a scene in the movie Silence. In response to Fr. Rodrigues’s insistence that there are many devout Christians in feudal Japan, Fr. Ferreira points at the Sun and responds, “Behold, there is their [the Japanese’s] Son of God.” The feudal Japanese “Christian” peasants were willing to die for the Sun that gave them life. The modern American consumer is willing to die of coronavirus for their consumerist addictions. What’s freedom? Freedom from desires or the freedom to indulge in mimetic desires planted in you by corporations? We fell for a bait-and-switch scam that replaced Christ with Gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. Thanks to the worship of Gluttony, we failed the ultimate marshmallow test: we gave up years of economic earnings in the future in exchange for a few weeks of economic earnings in February.
During these times, a lot of people misinterpret the virtue of fortitude. Let’s take a look at Luke 4:9-12:
And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and he said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself from hence.
For it is written, that He hath given his angels charge over thee, that they keep thee.
And that in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone.
And Jesus answering, said to him: It is said: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
And all the temptation being ended, the devil departed from him for a time.
Ignorantly dismissing the consequences of the pandemic isn’t fortitude; it’s a lack of prudence. If you think that God will protect you despite your carelessness, you are giving in to the Devil’s temptation. Prudence is the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken in a given situation at the appropriate time.
Yes, there are fearmongers, but do not confuse them with those who are prudent. The prudent are not afraid. The prudent calmly process all information and take the wisest course of action. This means we don’t ignore the reality of the virus, but we also don’t cower in fear of it. We should be permitted to go to essential gatherings and work if we’re geared up in hazmat suits, and go anywhere and do anything in nature as long as we keep sufficient physical distance from others. Why isn’t every citizen receiving high-quality PPE as part of the stimulus package?
Indefinite house arrest of the general public isn’t the only way to do effective social distancing, but it is the only method everyone talks about. There’s no good reason for staying inside. The virus isn’t everywhere outside. You’re most likely to be infected inside hospitals. It’s also possible to be infected inside poorly constructed apartments if the ventilation and plumbing are connected between units. If you are outside and far away from other people, you’re not getting infected. We need to expand the Overton window on alternative ways of social distancing.
For example, up to a third of the crops grown on farms just rot and go to waste. This pandemic has made the problem worse: now millions of gallons of milk and millions of eggs are also trashed weekly, because restaurants, hotels, and schools are not buying perishable goods.
Recently, renters have become a mimetic mob demanding the human sacrifice of landlords. Why are people demanding to be placed under house arrest inside a pod for free? Why aren’t they asking to be allowed to live freely off the land instead?
There is a correlation between the level of pollution and COVID-19 mortality. There might be a causal component to this, but it also might just be an artifact of network effects in cities. Regardless of causal mechanisms, there are good reasons to move people out of crowded apartments in cities.
During the pandemic, the government could give the farmers a subsidy to allow people to temporarily live off their land and surplus crops. Then, the government could set up tents for people who are unable to or do not want to pay for rent and food in cities. Of course, most people who rent in cities don’t have camping skills, but we can slowly shift culture, education, and resources to open up this possibility for them. Another problem is that many of these farms are monocropping. We can probably start with allowing people to live on polyculture farms with surpluses. If people have to live on monoculture farms, they can still use what’s available as their staple and bring supplements.
There are other reasons to avoid over-urbanization. Urbanization is strongly linked with the rise of asthma, allergies, airway inflammation, and autoimmune disorders. Exposure to farm life in early childhood reduces the development of allergies and asthma. Peanut allergies are quite common among Chinese Americans, but basically nonexistent in rural China.
I get that due to lack of preparation, our current best course of action is to shelter in place. But we should be very wary of long-term consequences and higher-order effects.
Related to the urban quarantine problem is the recommendation of constant handwashing. By all means wash your hands if you’ve been somewhere or touched something possibly exposed to coronaviruses, but don’t overdo it when you’re just staying at home. Studies show that doctors are at high risk of developing occupational allergies and asthma, and when you disinfect too frequently, you’re killing off your natural skin microbiome. If we create a culture that favors an overly sterile environment, we will adapt to that baseline, leaving us more fragile against future pandemics and bioweapon threats.
Many people are stuck in cities because they don’t see a way out. They don’t know of any other ways of life. They are depressed because they know that they are stuck in meaningless, wasteful, bullshit jobs rather than doing something meaningful for a living. Even disinfecting playgrounds feels far more meaningful than most office grunt work. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes thought that we’d have 15-hour workweeks by the end of the 20th century and plenty of time to work on our own passion projects. Instead, Parkinson’s law took effect: meaningless work expanded to fill the time allotted. If my proposed opportunity was provided to people, these who tried it out and liked it would be willing to transition to a vagabonding or homesteading lifestyle. We could start to discard our urbanization tunnel vision.
I’m not a permaculture expert, but if people pay more attention to these alternative social distancing proposals, someone will be able to figure out the logistical details to make things work well. Rather than an indefinite universal basic income where you become increasingly reliant on the government, we could do universal basic homesteading grants for building a fractal localist world. It’s much easier and less fragile to do social distancing in a fractal localist society. This would also solve the food wasting problem.
According to Scale by Geoffrey West, almost every quantifiable characteristic of a city scales superlinearly; this includes the spread of diseases. All aspects of networking become more efficient as a city gets bigger. It’s no surprise that the best networkers, the highest centrality nodes on social networks, were the first ones to catch COVID-19. It’s also no surprise that NYC has the highest density of cases in the U.S. Venture capitalists love to rave about network effects, and this pandemic revealed which ones actually understood them and which ones were just using buzzwords to signal intelligence.
If you actually took the MOOCs on network theory, you’d know that one of the first examples you study is the contagion of diseases on a network. Networkers and bureaucrats who wished to profit from mimetic contagions ended up as turkeys. The biological contagion was not a black swan to me (or anyone else who read The Black Swan carefully). But it was a black swan to them.
In the next part of this series, I will discuss the future of biosecurity in biotechnology.