Exponential functions. Understand this, and you’ll grasp the reality of the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus from China. I know math sucks, but if you can get this, you’ll lift the fog on just how bad this is.
With the Novel Coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2), some speculate that the number of people infected by it can double in as little as 6 days.
If one single person starts off with the virus, then after 6 days, 2 people would have it. After 12 days, 4 people would have it. After one month, 32 people would have it. That doesn’t sound so bad does it? It almost seems like the virus problem will remain small for a long time and be easy to contain.
After one month and two weeks, there would be enough infected people to fill a large movie theatre. After two months, over 1000 would have it. Still, in a country of 350 million, what’s 1000 people?
After about four months, enough people would have the virus to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium (80,000+). That’s a lot of people, but again, it took four whole months to get here. 80,000 is only 0.002% of 350 million. Sure seems like there’s plenty of time to contain this.
After five months, 33 million would have it. That’s 10% of America. At 6 months, everyone in America would have it. That escalated quickly didn’t it? That’s the point.
If a virus can be completely traced and caught early, it can be stopped. SARS, for example, caused major symptoms that were easily noticeable with simple fever checks. You couldn’t infect others unless you also had a very hot forehead. What if you couldn’t find infected people so easily?
All over the world, cases of COVID-19 (what the World Health Organization calls the sickness caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2) have appeared where the source of the infection is completely unknown. That means they caught it from the community, which implies that people are out there, infected, whom nobody knows about. I can’t scientifically prove that this virus spreads when people have no symptoms – currently the CDC says it barely can maybe it can’t at all, though others strongly disagree – but I can point to a hundred cases worldwide and prove that health officials are not able to nail down community infections.
Going back to the math, if you catch 4 out of 6 people with the virus, but 2 get away, the math starts again at 2. The government is only ever going to be able to catch a few people at a time, but for every 2 that get away, the race starts anew. These are called clusters and they’ll just keep growing. Once a cluster has 1000 people, the government will never catch even half of them.
In conclusion, this virus can’t be stopped without major draconian measures. By the end of this article, you can come to your own conclusions about what that means. The one part of this picture which is crystal clear is that this problem is not going to magically turn out to be nothing. Things will seem ominous, but under control, for possibly a few month. Then it will all explode, just like in Wuhan. That’s the math. Unless we’re very lucky and experience a miracle, crisis is inevitable.
Is the virus really going to be a crisis though? Isn’t it just the flu?
The libertarian community needs to get over the denialism many in the alternative and alt-conservative media have been touting. It’s ridiculous and validates that awful “ok boomer” meme about an out-of-touch generation of people who refuse to admit the existence of problems to which they themselves have helped contribute. Interestingly, on Reddit, a committed loony lefty said that Trump’s insistence to not worry, “Is the first thing he’s ever said which I agree with.” That ought to tell you something.
It might seem like the media and the left is hyping the virus. They’re not. They have been battling and censoring the people online who have been concerned about the virus from the very beginning. I have been among this small and resilient community which has been concerned about the virus from day one, and let me tell you: we’ve been right so far.
February 5, 2020,
USA – 11 cases
South Korea – 0 cases
Italy – 2 cases
Iran – 0 cases
February 15, 2020,
USA – 15 cases
South Korea – 28 cases
Italy – 3 cases
Iran – 0 cases
March 4, 2020,
USA – 108 cases
South Korea – 5,328 cases
Italy – 2,502 cases
Iran – 2,336 cases
Please cut it out with this, “Oh it’s just the flu,” nonsense. 4 weeks ago we knew this was a problem, 2 weeks ago we knew it was a problem, and we still know it’s a problem – and I’ll explain why. Suffice it to say, both 4 weeks ago, 2 weeks ago, and even now we are told it’s low risk, it’s being contained, it’s just the flu and so forth. 2 weeks from now, 4 weeks from now, 2 months from now: it’s still not going to be contained and it’s going to be – at least – much much worse than it is today.
Conservatives and libertarians: this virus isn’t a Democratic Party or Deep State scam (that is, the threat from the virus itself is real, regardless of anything else). It’s not a government scam either, because the government is doing just about everything it can to make sure this thing is not being contained. From the libertarian perspective, one harmful thing being done is advising people that it’s okay to travel to certain places or participate in large groups when it has not been safe to do so. The US government has prevented the entire medical system, public and private, from testing people for COVID-19 even when doctors wanted to for weeks now. This is not an issue of the government hyping up a fake crisis. Likewise, with the media, they have consistently walked back and downplayed information that has been spreading on social media. The media is doing more to serve the government’s effort to convince people not to be proactive, than it is to create hype and fear where there is none. If you’re a boomer who only watches 24 hour cable news in between cigar breaks with your retired church buddies, maybe you wouldn’t realize that. Please, stop acting like this is some fake crisis.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the virus.
SARS-CoV-2, the official name of the virus which causes “COVID-19”, needs to be understood through three categories of questions.
1) How does the virus spread, and how can it be detected (and contained)?
2) How dangerous will this be, in the end?
3) How are governments and health systems reacting?
Finally, what are the political implications of this disease?
How does the virus spread?
SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that is almost impossible to track. It has long incubation times, produces mild symptoms which are easily missed, and doesn’t produce harmful symptoms until very late in the disease life cycle. It also seems to be highly infectious.
The infectiousness of a disease is represented by a calculation known as R0 (“r naught”). This represents the average number of people who will be infected by every new person who has a disease. The number isn’t based on the virus itself, but rather the virus and also the environment in which it spreads. Cultures with poor hygiene habits could spread the disease more than others and end up with a higher R0 value. R0 of greater than 2 is considered pretty bad because the outbreak is guaranteed to grow unless aggressive containment measures are used to statistically balance against the disease. For example, cutting the amount of people you meet daily in half would lower R0 of 2 to 1.
The R0 of COVID-19 is hard to calculate, because it’s a statistical value and the situation is new. However, mathematical modelers primarily from the Los Alamos laboratory have modeled that COVID-19 has R0 of 4.7-6.6. That’s very bad. Some diseases, such as the Measles, are much worse, but these diseases have vaccines stopping them.
The virus spreads in ways that aren’t scientifically certain yet. There were rumors of Chinese doctors who wore masks getting infected, so it was assumed to be airborne and infecting people through the eye membranes. SARS, a related virus, was known to infect people via sewage fumes coming up through their toilet. SARS-CoV-2 samples have been found to be high in feces and urine of patients, even when it was low in their blood. Even so, there’s debate about whether the virus is “airborne” in the sense of carrying on the wind and infecting through air conditioning systems such as what Anthrax can do.
The recent Diamond Princess cruise ship shows how infectious the disease is, although, it’s unclear if people were infected because of pathetically bad hygiene practices. It seems as if crew were not really changing gloves or washing hands well when preparing food for quarantined guests.
Regardless, the virus is clearly infectious, at least R0 greater than 2. The “worst case” of airborne, aerosol transmission is discussed here.
Another complication of the virus is that it seems almost impossible to trace. Incubation periods seem to be 5 days on average, but one reported case showed 24 days of incubation before symptoms started. Even once you get sick, it takes an average of 10 days before minor symptoms become serious enough to go to the hospital, according to the first few cases out of Wuhan. This means many people would likely “tough it out” and go to work with what seems to be a minor fever and small cough. In Japan, many cases have showed symptoms appearing then two weeks passing before the patient visited a hospital and was ultimately tested. It could be that the case numbers seen in the news today represent those infected 2-3 weeks ago. Governments and most of the public could be basing their assessments of the severity of the situation on how the situation was 2-3 weeks ago, in other words.
Diseases like SARS and MERS produce severe symptoms rather quickly. SARS is one reason why airports do fever checks. Generally, people who are spreading this disease also have fevers. For SARS-CoV-2, this is not the case. While asymptomatic transmission has been reported many times, it is not proven. However, it is known that symptoms remain mild for a long time in most cases. Also, it could be the case that most infected people only ever have mild symptoms.
In my opinion, based on this evidence, it seems impossible to reactively contain or contact trace COVID-19. You’d always be two weeks behind, while 10 times as many invisible cases are occurring underneath your nose, unseen. This is validated by the relatively high number of cases all over the world where the patient was infected from an unknown source – i.e.: the community at large.
The only containment measure is to test hundreds of thousands of people and engage in shutdowns of public society in affected areas. South Korea has actually tested 100,000+ people (as of 5 March, 2020). In contrast, the USA and Japan – for example – have tested significantly fewer. There could be a massive outbreak of 10,000+ infected in the US and we wouldn’t know.
Troublingly, there are many countries where people can’t even get tested even if they want to. Reports of insurance refusing to cover SARS-CoV-2 tests, and folks paying $3,000+ for them, have emerged (even though this seems to be very slowly changing). The reason for this lack of testing, previously, was because health authorities deny the possibility of an outbreak. We can speculate about corruption and conspiracy, but frankly, it’s classic government. They simply cannot see the unseen. I’m disheartened that libertarians lately have fallen for this same trap.
The viral outbreak in Wuhan began some time between mid-October and mid-November. Their hospitals didn’t notice a problem until mid-January. The major panic and crisis only began at the end of January. Conservatively, it takes two months from when the virus begins to spread, before the medical system would notice something amiss – if you aren’t testing massive numbers of people. This is consistent with a modest (actually, terrifying) doubling rate of one week (every week the number of infected doubles), as well as patients taking 7-21 days to show up sick at the hospital.
For the USA, the problem is beginning to become visible. However, it will be 4 weeks (into early April) before the hospital system would be overloaded – by this timetable. Assuming many health care workers could get infected due to lack of equipment, in 8-12 weeks you could actually see a collapse of the American medical system. Good luck with your diabetes then. Assuming supply lines to Chinese drug manufacturers are stable by then.
How bad is the virus?
According to the previously cited Lancet review of Wuhan clinical data from January, comorbidity rates for the virus were 33%, with 17% requiring mechanical ventilation. Imagine if half of America gets infected before anyone hardly notices or does anything to stop the spread. What’s 33% of 175 million people (it’s 55 million)? More than we have emergency room beds (100,000-500,000 critical care beds). If hospitals get overwhelmed with cases, where will you find your mechanical ventilator to stay alive?
In the Lancet data, among those requiring critical hospital care, 11% died. That’s 11% of 20%, or roughly 2%. WHO has presently upgraded this death rate to 3.4%. Others have guessed it’s 6%.
The silver lining is that, if the virus is as infectious as believed, it could be that many more people are catching it than we think. It could be that these 20% and 3.4% figures should be much lower. A lot of people are actually banking on this, including those who argue that only old people are at risk. Yeah, screw just the old people, I guess. Whatever doesn’t affect me isn’t allowed to be called a problem – great attitude.
Even so, consider two counterpoints to the, “It’s only a flu,” narrative.
When Wuhan was reporting a few thousand infected, a Hong Kong researcher estimated the number was over 70,000. During the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, there were videos of body bags in which the number of body bags you could count just in the few leaked videos was greater than the official death count (and two famous citizen journalists producing these videos were thereafter “quarantined” and disappeared). Add to that China’s practice of counting pneumonia deaths, if old people die in their apartment, as regular pneumonia – never even testing for the new virus. Add China’s general lack of transparency. There’s reason to think that the problem may have been much worse.
One interesting piece of evidence was that China’s data was fit to a mathematical model developed by a data analyst who posted his results on Twitter. The data fit the model with 99% fitness. Recently this same person determined that if China’s death rate matched what we are seeing in South Korea, there should be 400,000+ dead (suffice it to say this is just from a mathematical model, and would also imply that the number of infected in China would be much higher than what’s being reported).
The “official” WHO death rate is based largely on Chinese data.
The second point is that the virus takes a long time to marinate, for some reason. It may possibly have troubling features that make it more deadly but make the deaths lag significantly. I will provide an example later, but first consider that it takes weeks to die of slow, irreversible, incurable pneumonia once you’re on a ventilator. We won’t understand the threat this disease poses until at least mid-summer, when many of the cases infected large outside-of-China populations have had a chance to fully mature (6+ weeks in total). There is zero reason to place bets on complacency at the moment.
What does the virus actually do? It causes lung damage, by infecting lung cells. You get a fever, often mild, and a cough. If you have a severe case, you get pneumonia that infects both lobes and slowly inhibits breathing until you can barely breathe and end up dead or with permanent lung damage.
In some cases, particularly the severe cases in which recovery from pneumonia occurs, horrifying alternate symptoms occur. Myocardia and renal injury (heart and kidney failure) for one. Like SARS-CoV (the original SARS), SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) has been shown in cases to infect the nervous system and cause encephalitis. The disease has also resulted in run-of-the-mill death by viral sepsis. Not to forget the immune system overreaction called a cytokine storm which killed many during the Spanish Flu and also many AIDS victims.
There are two questions associated with these symptoms. First, how many people get them? It’s unclear at the moment. Many of the outside-of-China’s internet firewall patients are currently in a many-weeks recovery. For all we know, a high percentage of infected do in fact have mild symptoms and temporary recoveries only for a dormant virus to flare up later with much more severe symptoms. This “recovered-but-then-infected-again” phenomenon has occurred in countries all over the world. It’s not clear why this happens and all the answers are troubling. All the answers suggest that severe symptoms aren’t a matter of quantity, but time as the virus spreads uninhibited.
Second, how does the virus cause all these symptoms? SARS-CoV-2 seems to have some relationship to certain special cell receptors in the lungs, which are also in the heart, kidney, and other places. Yet, how does it infect the nervous system, and why does it happen in some patients and not others? The disease known as Chickenpox remains dormant in the nervous system until later when it reawakens as the disease called “Shingles.”
Imagine all the unknowns of a virus which has already shown such a tremendous ability to interfere with so many body systems.
There is more than enough evidence to be very afraid of this virus, even if we prove that it’s not as harmful as it first appeared. We have not proven that yet.
However, isn’t a vaccine being developed? First of all, vaccines take over a year to develop. One reason is that untested vaccines can cause more harm than good, sometimes with deadly side-effects.
Chinese scientists have unsuccessfully pursued a SARS vaccine for over a decade. In one study – at the Wuhan lab of all places – a major side effect to a SARS vaccine was observed. In this trial, mice who were infected with the vaccine were then re-infected with SARS. The result was worse symptoms and rapid death, a consequence of something called Antibody Dependent Enhancement, or ADE. This is a feature of viruses like the one which causes Dengue fever and HIV. With this feature, viruses exploit our own immune system. After a first infection, your body produces antibodies in your blood to help identify the same virus so it can be quickly destroyed, preventing future infections. However, with ADE, viruses identified by these antibodies use them to hitch a ride onto immune cells. In turn, the virus is spread throughout the body by the immune system itself – leading to a rapid, severe viral infection. Other studies have observed this feature of SARS. SARS-CoV-2 is “SARS like” but with additions. It’s unclear if it shares this feature, but I’d be skeptical of any prospect of a vaccine any time soon. It would be a big fat mistake to count on the vaccine to be our savior.
Reliance on a vaccine to magically solve the problem so that it never has to be a real problem seems like the sort of typical attitude common to the American Empire (and “boomers”). Meaningful preventative infrastructure is ignored because of high upfront costs, and the difficulties and lifestyle changes required. An actual viral outbreak is reactively addressed via a massive spending boondoggle of a vaccine that is then a massive industrial pork project and one-size-fits-all non-solution. Unfortunately, not all viruses can be cured with a vaccine.
In any event, if ADE is truly a feature of SARS-CoV-2, we’re screwed. It means that people are getting mild first infections that go unnoticed, and then after a few weeks the “second wave” gets you (which is not the same as a typical second wave as seen in the Spanish flu, which is a mutation that comes much later). ADE is not a joke, and if a massive number of people in a community have been infected once, an ADE assisted second wave would probably have a massive casualty rate. Even so, there’s no proof yet that this feature exists for COVID-19.
Another “nightmare” feature of SARS-CoV-2 is the possibility that, like Shingles virus, it remains dormant in your system. Or, similar to HIV, it can never be completely cured. You’d have to take harsh medicines for the rest of your life to suppress it and prevent the onset of drowning in your own lung fluids the second your immune system is compromised for some other reason. Again, no proof of this, but something is causing long periods between infection and onset, and very long recovery times. Something is causing seemingly negative testing patients, and seemingly recovered patients, to test positive later and/or get sick again.
Why are we playing footsie with this virus again, without understanding it yet, knowing what we do know?
Finally, how did this virus come into being? The status quo opinion is that because the virus has genetic similarities to viruses which live in bats, that it must have come from a bat somehow. This is tied to the story that the virus originated at Wuhan’s wet market (now thought to likely be false). The virus actually preexisted the cases at the wet market and the wet market cluster was a convenient scape goat for a source of “animal origins.” That said, completely new virus can’t just appear out of the blue among humans. The conventional thinking is that a novel virus has to originate in nature somehow, meaning it has to come from animals who have been breeding it in the wild prior to it ever coming into contact with humans. However, now humans can create new viruses using technology like CRISPR by combining RNA in novel and unnatural ways. Unless there’s specific and clear evidence that a new virus has come from nature, it easily could have come from a lab.
There has been controversy lately about something called gain of function research at biolabs. This is where researchers take existing deadly pathogens and add features to them. One application of this, unrelated to weapons development, is to make viruses enter into cells more quickly to speed up research. For example, the Wuhan lab was researching SARS vaccine. They could have modified their test viruses, possibly with minor HIV genes that affect cell entry, to make the virus infect the test animals more quickly. The speed of entry isn’t meant to affect the ultimate effects of the virus, it simply increases how quickly research can be done by allowing the effects of a virus to appear more quickly in animals. However, if such a virus escaped into the world it would spread very very quickly, since the natural environment (human bodies) has no existing relationship with this kind of feature.
In my opinion, SARS-CoV-2 is probably a vaccine research, bio-engineered variant of new SARS-like viruses discovered in Chinese bats. I suspect they were researching with this virus and it escaped because of poor lab protocol. Someone just didn’t wash their hands right, because they were overworked and tired. Convoluted theories of selling test bats to markets are unnecessary and besides the point. Though, the Washington Post has said this lab theory is totally debunked so take that for what you will.
It doesn’t really matter where the virus came from, except in one sense. If the virus was lab engineered, even if not for purposes of weapons development, then it means it could possibly do things that no virus has ever done before. I don’t know why the hell governments don’t get this. They are fighting this war with the last war’s weapons – typical.
How is government reacting?
The reaction of governments to this crisis is a disgrace. Government has long since inserted itself into public health as an authority and can coerce activity related to public health – both among public and private institutions. This creates information stovepipes, centralizes medical opinion and also medical practice. Even with no coercive authority over your life, government has poisoned the well and created conditions where your neighbors will behave in a way that will harm you, that you can’t control.
From the beginning, the main focus of governments seems to have been on political correctness. When Chinese individuals had leaked videos of body bags, overwhelmed hospitals, panicking citizens and brutal lockdowns, the rest of the world was more concerned with not being racist. While Wuhan was being ravaged by this disease, and half of its population (5 million people, many of whom would have been infected) escaped quarantine to other places in China and all over the world, other nations did next to nothing. Again and again the WHO insisted that travel bans were unnecessary. Meager, imperfect fever checks and polite questionnaires were the only response.
For weeks authorities said, “Human-to-human spread outside China hasn’t been confirmed”. To this day the CDC still says that the ability for this virus to spread when a person has mild or no symptoms is very low (are they sure, how do they know?).
The CDC has completely fumbled the test kit situation, letting 6 weeks go by. States have begun producing their own tests, but the CDC insists that cases can only be called presumptively confirmed until the CDC can test them itself. The University of Washington has now produced its own test kits in spite of the CDC.
Just like in the US, for weeks in Japan, for example, they will not test people even when the doctor insists, simply because patients have not traveled to Hubei, China in the last two weeks. Many local health departments took 4 weeks to update their testing criteria from what it was on day one of the crisis. What a monstrous failure. Japan has a notoriously low number of cases (only about 300, ignoring the cruise ship, which is now fewer than Italy, South Korea, Iran, Germany and soon the USA). Japan also has the highest number of Chinese travelers and the largest, densest metropolis on Earth. Tokyo supposedly only has fewer than 50 cases. Yeah right.
Next week Japan will enact emergency powers allowing for forced quarantine, forcing businesses to pay workers who have to stay home and allowing for the confiscation of property towards fighting the disease. Seems like a great recipe for disaster. I am suspicious that the government is willingly delaying their identification of cases until these powers are in effect. Presently, 300 some odd cases are confirmed in Japan. There are over 5,000 in South Korea. It makes no sense, even accounting for hygiene and weird cults. The cases in Japan are all over geographically, everywhere, and many have no known source. There’s obviously an unidentified major outbreak in Japan. Pay attention to how Japan looks after March 15, it has stayed under the radar because of its pathetically unrealistic numbers.
In the US, the CDC guidance on this virus and the repeating chorus you’ll hear all the time that, “The risk to Americans is low,” will get us killed. As I said, now is not the time to go to that regional volleyball tournament with your daughter’s high school team.
There’s a naïve, unscientific belief that just because we haven’t proven that this virus can harm us, that it won’t. Trump thinks he can talk the stock market out of its now inevitable decline with his “hunches.”
This is it.
Supply chains will never recover. In the next few months, multiple national economies will shut down due to quarantine measures. People living paycheck to paycheck won’t make it, so expect WWII style economic policies for better or worse. Medical martial law is likely, since no other solution other than staying away from other people will be possible for a while. Prepare for that, both in terms of keeping yourself fed and safe, but also in terms of preparing for the political fallout.
This is 9/11 all over again. A failure of the imagination because the unimaginative are in charge. The most easily predictable crisis taking authorities completely by surprise. Health officials are saying it can’t spread asymptomatically, that it can be contained by identifying symptoms and contact tracing and that the risk is low. I have personally seen a mountain of solid evidence to contradict all of those sentiments. Taking in the rumors and anecdotes, the picture is much worse. Off hand reports, rumors and text messages from nurses and doctors in Texas, in Washington State, in NYC and Buffalo, NY all indicate the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in all these places since weeks ago. None of it on the CDC’s public radar. The CDC continues to decline to be transparent about the numbers being tested and why the response has been lackluster. The amount of obfuscation is terrifying.
Think about where we are. Imagine if travel from China was banned the minute Wuhan itself locked down? By the whole world, on WHO’s recommendation. Imagine if hundreds of thousands of tests were prepared as soon as possible, and presumptive cases of the virus were treated as possibly airborne deadly threats from the beginning? Imagine if countries all helped each other be able to do this? That seems harsh and extreme, but if it had been done the virus threat in the USA would be completely over by now. Very few people would ever have been infected. Yes, the scenario is unlikely, but in the coming weeks think about this: it could have all been over by now.
If 60% of America gets infected (likely), and 20% need a hospital bed to live (somewhat possible), you’re looking at 40 million dead Americans. This is not inconceivable.
We can complain, as libertarians, about the government throwing its weight around and banning travel and so forth. My response is the same I give to those who worry about panic. It’s going to happen one way or another, so I’d prefer it to happen sooner, with less fallout.
If the hospital system gets overwhelmed and people are dying and not getting care, that will cause a major panic. The only thing to ameliorate it would be if a greater number of people ‘panicked’ earlier and are more prepared later. Shelves will empty, fights will start, many will be on their own and left high and dry.
Likewise, a travel ban on China would have been extreme, but the martial law and forced vaccinations which are coming are infinitely more terrifying.
I personally don’t believe that war is moral, but what if the front lines of a battle crossed your house? What if you had to leave, or get shelled? What if leaving meant you had to shoot and kill to make it past the battle lines, to safety? War is immoral because it’s something civilization has to proactively do – build and train armies, prepare battle plans, mobilize. When civilization breaks down, the rules change. Morality says you have to always try to establish moral conditions, and civilized law, even when you risk personal harm and have to make sacrifices. Even so, there are reasonable limits. If there’s no reasonable prospect of establishing law, and an obstinate, immoral person is taking actions threatening your family, there is reasonable cause to act in ways that are less than civilized.
In the coming crisis, libertarians have to be very careful about how they respond. Libertarian purity is gone, but so is the pragmatic need to abide the rules of the statist system.
Regardless, do I think it will get that bad? Given the math I presented at the beginning of this article, and the seeming ability of this virus to hide easily while spreading, it’s very possible for an extremely large population of people to become infected. New diseases against which humans have no immunity are very threatening. There are reasons why the human population on Earth never exceeded a few hundred million for so many centuries. The Smallpox epidemic that wiped out Native Americans is a good example of what happens when a new pathogen is introduced to a population. That said, there is not evidence yet that this new SARS-CoV-2 is nearly as deadly as smallpox. Nevertheless, the fact that in many cases it produces mild symptoms is what makes it so hard to track. In modern society, a disease as visibly bad as smallpox would get noticed. That’s why COVID-19 is so insidious.
If major containment measures and travel restrictions such as those undertaken by China are not enacted, it’s theoretically possible that over half of humanity could contract this disease. Using similar logic, some experts have stated that in theory 60% of the world could become infected. There is another data point which is far from confirmed and will most likely go down as we know more, which says that perhaps as high as 20% of those infected will need to go to the hospital because of severe pneumonia. The napkin math is simple: this would mean hundred of millions of deaths as medical systems are overwhelmed. That said, containment measures, scientific discoveries and plain good luck could easily make the situation turn out to be far less dire. It’s worth mentioning and acknowledging the napkin math nonetheless. This puts gives the situation’s proportions, even if this horrific outcome never occurs.
The prospect of an apocalyptic number of people dying from this disease is not the main issue. As regional outbreaks grow, they will be combated. It’s doubtful that – beyond this early phase – people will do nothing if a true crisis emerges. Once people really start fighting the virus, the ultimate severity becomes a matter of fate. What really matters, more than predicting how bad the medical problem will be, is preparing for the economic and political fallout.
In an environment where it appears as if many lives are at risk, people will panic, and they won’t be economically productive (as staying home could be one of the few very effective measures). Supply lines and Chinese production will be threatened. Production elsewhere like SE Asia and India are likely similarly at risk. Travel companies are doomed. The economy, being as fragile as it is, will probably collapse. Debt default is unlikely, given the government’s ability to create liquidity, but the storied hyperinflation seems like a strong possibility. You can’t pump up real economic disruptions, that’s the problem.
Today, many people are living paycheck to paycheck. It’s possible that laws will be passed where people don’t have to pay rent or mortgages for a time, but what a real economic nightmare that will be. I am highly skeptical of the government’s (read: military) ability to manage supply lines and keep people fed in a martial law environment. Normal medical problems will go untreated. Even law enforcement might get sick.
The government itself will be affected. Iran’s parliament is infected, and a couple of senior leaders have died. Apparently there have been a couple cases from people who attended AIPAC, which 2/3 of Congress and Mike Pence attended. Canada’s military is planning for absentee rates as high as 25% in the military due to the virus. You think local cops will be immune?
There was major chaos and a breakdown of public order after hurricane Katrina. I would expect that this sort of environment will probably emerge in more than a few places worldwide.
As libertarians, we understand that the government’s power is sort of a façade. There’s a reason why the FBI has to constantly infiltrate and honeypot do-nothing loser groups of weirdos. If the image of government legitimacy or power falters, the costs of maintaining power rise exponentially. This is the truly concerning black swan. The general loss of legitimacy of government, and the consequent social effects.
The next 10 years have the potential to be very bad.
Will the virus be this bad? There is hope. It could turn out to be less bad then we think. Hospitals will be overcrowded to a degree, and hundreds of thousands worldwide will die. The economy will probably enter into a depression. In spite of this inevitability, the virus may turn out to be no worse than that. Maybe people could become immune to it after catching it. Maybe a treatment will be discovered. As much as things could go wrong, they could go right.
Even so, if things do go reasonably wrong, this would be a 500-year event in mankind’s history – bigger than WWII. I haven’t even mentioned the possibility of war between nation states as a consequence of the breakdown of society. As Nietzsche said, man has killed God. Yet, our system is still based on certain pretenses carried over from the last 1500 years. Comfort and safety have been band-aids which have prevented a true reckoning with the new world and new millennium. Industry saved the peasant from the life of the Middle Ages. Industry led to empire and modernism, which never fully lived out its natural lifespan. America, protected by geography and luck, crushed modernist politics with force, imposing a global system based on the pretense of safety experienced by American society. The comfort of the last 20 years, in America, exists because of Chinese slave labor. The effects of that are now blowing back directly. The last 500 years have been the slow move away from blood, soil and church, towards something else. The next 500 years will be about discovering what that something else is, and I believe this event now is the catalyst marking the change.
What is the political fallout, if this gets bad?
First and foremost, all people whether libertarian or not need to remember one thing about this crisis: never ever ever ever, ever, ever ever forget or forgive the government for screwing this up. They screwed up the economy, society, the medical system; never forget. They also wasted two critical months dicking around, denying the problem, preventing those who saw the problem from acting, censoring, contradicting and belittling the voices who saw this.
The WHO has prevented dozens of countries from reacting more seriously to the virus, and only now that China is off the media radar are they beginning to hype up the threat. This is criminal negligence, in the plainest sense. Even so, the spiritual, moral and historical implications of this crisis and its possible magnitude suggest that WHO deserves much more serious scrutiny and scorn than what a mere manslaughter trial could produce. The global institutions, the UN etc., may try to insert themselves into this crisis and gain power from it. They helped cause this. They are politicized, corrupt and often ideological. They should never ever ever have power, or even credibility, ever again.
Globalization and the financialized economy should die. This crisis exists because “quarantine” is no longer possible in modern society. A quarantine is a 40-day isolation, the word derived from the Venetian/Italian word for 40. Our society can hardly afford to allow people to take 2 whole weeks off of work, and can’t afford even a one day stop to cross-border traffic and trade. This system sucks. Debt-fueled finance creates a treadmill that can never stop, and despite its ability to produce, it leaves no time to breathe and reassess the value of what’s actually being produced.
I used to think globalization was great because of comparative advantage. Yes, the economics of free markets and free trade suggest that they produce more efficiency and higher standards of living. Yes, capitalism has brought China out of poverty Milton Friedman. Still, 20+ years later look at the effects. The economy is more efficient, but traditional society is totally displaced and the family is dying. Not only have “economic animals” found that they cannot remain in the home, the local community, the nest – tossed from city to city, concentrating in ugly, overpriced, rundown metropolises chasing jobs – most of the developing world is struggling to afford to have even one child. People are living paycheck to paycheck. China has tasted prosperity, and yet has no desire for freedom. Look at what bringing the civilized technological world into China has given us: COVID-19.
The Mises Institute’s latest tack is the right one, in my opinion. Libertarianism has to focus on strengthening local communities against outside pressures. Whether they are rural, religious towns or urban syndicalist communes. If the power is to be decentralized, the economy and social structures have to be too.
Sadly, total individual freedom seems to require an “empire of liberty.” It requires centralized financial system which can reach its tentacles into all communities so that anyone anywhere can abandon local social systems and experience personal freedom. That empire of liberty has been killing people all over the world to secure its resources and markets, to keep itself afloat and fund the patchwork social programs which paper over the destruction of local social structures. All so we can trot around drinking and smoking with nary a care. That lifestyle isn’t possible without a monolithic system of law and social programs. Constraints come from nature and they have to be realized somehow. More and more I’m convinced that what is called personal freedom is synonymous with left-wing statism.
The libertarian future has to be decentralization. Yes, it’s inefficient at times, and restricts personal freedom at times, but it’s the only system capable of stability and dynamism at the same time. Personal freedom will result from finding the right community to join and building good fences to make good neighbors. All of this will require compromises, but compromise is a necessary part of living in a world with natural constraints.
The virus has strongly solidified my support of localism. No matter how the situation unfolds politically, I believe that the public must finally put its foot down in favor of decentralization by the time it’s through.
The job treadmill will collapse. The debt treadmill will collapse. The welfare and medical system will collapse. For goodness’ sake don’t rebuild it again when it’s all said and done! When you and your neighbors successfully get through this on your own, don’t cede the power back, even if you have to fight.
This virus is both the proof and the chance for the people of Earth to put their foot down and keep their natural rights and powers next time the government comes to collect them.
No matter what happens, that’s the key.
Even if this crisis becomes unimaginably bad, as the economic and political effects follow the medical, humanity has a leg up. Even if the entire system falls flat on its face, mankind has accumulated vastly more useful knowledge today than it had even 100, even 50, or even 20 years ago. Even if we face 10 years of hell, as long as the old constraints are removed and people adjust, we have enough knowledge to very quickly recover.
Keeping in mind that rapid recovery is possible, our goal during any potential crisis is to prepare for the next stage. We need to sharpen up our moral, economic, and political theories. It’s the perfect time to preach Rothbard and Mises. Even so, we’re going to need something better than Rothbard. Libertarians need to innovate, to take the foundations and build higher.