Disease by the numbers

Credit: tumsasedgars

Every morning I check the Covid-19 stats for the state and county I live in. Every day the numbers get bigger and the picture grimmer, even when things are improving. How can this be?

First of all, let me dispel the notion that I want to downplay the danger. Far from it; I fully support efforts to get people to wear masks in public places, to avoid large groups, and to keep a reasonable distance apart when interacting. I support those measures being made mandatory when necessary. I hear people say that they’ve “done their time” in lockdown, and that it seemed to them that the threat turned out to be much less than the government let on.  Setting aside for the moment the question of what motivation there would be for the government to impose lockdown, except to keep the pandemic under control, these people miss the obvious fact that the measures they complain about are exactly why the direst predictions never materialized.

But those issues have been dissected and debated abundantly; there’s no reason to add my 2 bits beyond what I have already written.  My interest here is in information and the extent to which it is useful.

Keeping a running total of infections doesn’t seem to be very useful. You might find it helpful if your motive is to keep the sense of crisis alive, but even that is questionable. There is no shortage of published articles on crisis fatigue. At a certain point, there’s just an overload, and the human alert system just shuts down. Eat, drink, and be merry, as the saying goes, for tomorrow we die. 

We need a way to assess how many people are actually infectious at any given time. In my county, for example, just over a thousand cases have been reported since the beginning in March. Something over sixty have died.  But I can’t easily find how many of those cases have recovered.

So, out of that thousand, you can subtract the deaths, which are statistically miniscule. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could also subtract the number of recovered, and therefore no longer infectious, cases?  I know those numbers are available, but why can’t we see a number for current cases that are actually a potential threat? Shouldn’t that number be front and center?

So long, moonless night

This is meant as allegory and is therefore open to many interpretations. Feel free to indulge.

You weren’t hungry anymore. You could think about food dispassionately, without a trace of that feeling, like being sucked inside out from the middle, as if your navel were an entrance to a boundless vacuum willing the world to come bounding in, smoothing and soothing, neither cool nor warm, not so much fulfilling as unempty.

Curiously, though, you found yourself obsessed with pictures of food, from crisp steaks to mushy oatmeal, the heat and fragrance leaping from the paper, photographs so detailed it seemed you could taste them.

None of this, of course, had any effect like hunger; you were decidedly not hungry. you preferred pictures.

And so you sat, cataloging slips of illustrated food carefully torn from magazines. It was only a few days — how many? Never mind — since you stopped eating. No one was more surprised than you that all traces of hardship had vanished after the second day, or was it the third? You couldn’t have said exactly when; by the time you noticed it was already a fact.

Which was odd, you thought, because you had been amazed at how clear, how focused you grew with every passing day. It seemed nothing escaped your attention, no detail too small or trivial, especially time, which even slowed down or sped up according to the demands of your interests. You knew precisely when each of the clearly remembered events in your recent past had occurred.

Except what time you had stopped being hungry, even on so gross a scale as what day. Food was brought to you. You made a detailed study of the tray it came on, the bowl, the spoon. By now you could, you were certain, produce a precisely thorough drawing of them, but, curiously, you couldn’t recall the food itself, which you sent back untouched.

All the same, you kept files, lists, really, entirely in your memory, of things that occurred to you in vivid detail, both physical and ephemeral. For example, your meditation on how long a person could last without food, based on things you had read casually years and months before, but which you could recall perfectly, except the actual length of time one could survive.  Never mind, it varied immensely by individual, you recalled.  Surely you had plenty of time left.

More satisfying were the recipes, an obsession to go along with the pictures. Clear, concise formulas for the exact process of transforming raw food into not just edible form — for most of the raw food was already edible, strictly speaking — but into perfect symphonies of texture, flavor, temperature, and even, you thought grudgingly, nutrition.

Really, when you thought about it, there was no reason to consider nutrition. Food, to you, had become a purely esthetic phenomenon.

No, not that either, and not quite an obsession, more satisfying than that, without the corrupting factor of pleasure.

Pure chemical exercise with a delightful utilitarian edge. Two cups of this, a teaspoon of that, add a precise amount of thermal energy…

You turned on your side, closed your eyes, and waited. The moon slid behind a cloud.

From the jottings of John H. Watson, MD

It was October of 1896, a particularly cool autumn, although by no means unpleasant. I had been reading in my chair in our digs in Baker Street, and I confess I was about to doze off, when Holmes burst in in uncommon agitation.
”Come, Watson!” he cried, “The gay Miss Afutte!”
Startled from my slumber, I could make no sense of this outburst.
“Whatever do you mean?” I demanded.
“Miss Olivia Afutte, the most celebrated ingénue of the season, is to be present at a ball given by the honorable Milton Gladbum,” he replied, “and we just have time to get there.”
I was astonished. Holmes had never before expressed the slightest interest in society, indeed he often professed disdain for the triviality of it.
“Aloysius Mentry, the barrister, will always be found where Miss Afutte consents to appear,” he explained, no doubt seeing my confusion. “I need him.”
As no further explanation appeared to be forthcoming, I roused myself and put on a jacket.
“Hand me my lozenges, will you, Watson?” said Holmes
“Lozenges? What lozenges?”
“You know, my menthols, Watson,” said he.
Outside, Holmes hailed a hansom cab, and we were on our way. As it was some distance to the home of Mr. Mentry, I ventured a question.
“Why, exactly,” I asked, “do you need the good barrister?”
“To get access to his daughter.”
“And who is she?”
“Ella Mentry, my dear Watson. Ella Mentry.”

Service in hard times

It’s a thing nowadays, thanking veterans for their service. I get it a lot, because I was, as Bill McClellan so eloquently put it, “…patriotic enough to flunk out of college and get drafted…”  I always feel a bit uncomfortable. If only they knew what my service was like.

But now we have lots of people who really do deserve our gratitude for their service: delivery people, grocery store employees, all the people going to work as normal while the rest of us hunker down.

Of all the people who deserve and need our support, however, none are doing so much and taking greater risks than health care workers. They’re on the front line day after day, working long hours with inadequate equipment, literally risking their lives.  They get exposed to the biggest doses of the virus and for longer periods, which seems to induce much more severe illness, at a time when fatigue and stress reduce their ability to resist.  I am certain that when this is all over, we will have many, many cases of PTSD among health care workers.

Let’s thank them now, but above all let’s not forget them when times return to something like normal. We owe them so much.

A cautionary tale

The recent British election, in which Tories, and therefore Boris Johnson and Brexit, won in a landslide, should serve as a warning to the American left in the coming elections next November.

In my particular (left leaning) media bubble everything I read about British politics was against the Tories, and in particular against Brexit. It looked like BJ would get his ass handed to him on a platter, or at best eke out a narrow victory. The extent of his victory, never mind the verdict itself, was a shock to me. Of course, this could say more about me as an individual than about the expectations of the British public, but the point is that I had no reason to doubt my impression of the political zeitgeist there.

Everything I read about American politics would lead me to believe Trump is a dead man walking. Polls notwithstanding, the daily barrage of lamentation and outrage serves only to support the idea that his Waterloo is imminent. His transgressions are increasingly brazen, and even his support in the Senate seem transparently self-serving; a person could be forgiven for thinking that fair-minded peoiple on the right could easily rebel and go against him and his enablers.

I keep reading that Republicans, even in the Senate, despise him in their secret hearts. I hear that the fact that they stand by him publicly only exposes their hypocrisy and self preservation.

But here’s the rub: maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe the very hypocrisy we deplore should tell us something about the electorate, that Republicans don’t dare show their anti-Trump side because they know it would hurt them politically.

Maybe, as in the UK, enough people are more tired of liberal condescension than they are afraid of what Trump is doing to the coutry. Maybe — dare I say it? -– they actually like what he’s doing. Going strictly by the numbers, the economy looks good. True, much of that can be said to be in spite of Trump rather than because of him, but Republicans may well believe their constituency will reward staying the course and punish any criticism of it.

A case in point is the currently favorite liberal whipping boy, Lindsey Graham. He certainly is among the most brazen of the code-switchers, since he has a history of public Trump-bashing. What does he see that makes him so confident in his turn-around?

On one hand, if Trump survives and gets re-elected along with a majority in either house, Graham coasts in on the tide. If on the other hand, Trump loses, what are the prospects?

Surveying the current Democratic contenders, he probably doesn’t see anyone who would survive beyond a single term. Don’t forget, Republican obstructionists were able to limit much of Obama’s agenda, even when he had a Democratic congress.

I’m not saying such an analysis has any merit, but I can see Graham and his cohort believing it. Graham himself has a history of running for president, and certainly has his eyes on 2024.

But why, you may ask, is the Republican electorate so blind to the hipocrisy of so many Republican politicians, who were so dead set against Trump, and now enthusiastically sing in his choir?

I have a better question. Why is the left, in particular the Bernie-crats, so smitten with political consistency, as if no one is allowed to learn anything for the duration of a public career?

One big reason BJ got his victory in the UK was that so many people who might normally have voted left couldn’t stomach Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader. There are very good reasons for this, but the key is that their disdain was never enough to dislodge him from his position as leader.

Take that as you will; I just hope it’s not a lesson too late for the learning.