… organize! Or so the saying goes, though, today, of course, we have to mourn as well. Mourn and organize. And nurture. And care. And think.
And imagine, as well, though not so much that our enemies and opponents seize the future (as it seems they have) while we’re daydreaming.
I’m of course referring to the big, world-reshaping imagining that has been necessary for generations, but briefly, let’s do some narrower imagining around the rapidly evolving data on COVID-19.
Let’s imagine a best-case for NYC: Recent serological surveys are roughly correct and ~20% to 25% of the City’s population already has antibodies for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19. Research out of China (from early April, so perhaps already dated) suggested that 4 out of 5 cases of the disease were asymptomatic, so if we further imagine that people with asymptomatic cases generate positive PCR tests (while infected), but negative serological tests (post-infection), then we could even come to the conclusion that ~1 out of 5 NYC residents have already had symptomatic infections, but nearly all NYC residents have already been infected, symptomatically or otherwise. If we layered on further the assumptions that antibodies confer at least temporary immunity (say for 1-3 years), and that people who experienced asymptomatic infection, while not immune, may simply not be susceptible to this disease (and thus to future symptomatic infection), we’d have a situation in which all surviving vulnerable individuals had at least near-term immunity, and very few people in NYC remained at risk of suffering serious illness or death – though, of course, asymptomatic individuals in this hypothetical could still be dangerous carriers again in a context where a significant number of susceptible individuals were present.
(I’ll note that 13 fighter jets just thundered overhead. I’m reassured about the strength of our life-destroying military, but remain deeply concerned about the state of our public health apparatus and all of our life-sustaining public goods and services.)
Okay, now let’s imagine the worst-case scenario: The serological tests have overstated the seroprevalence in NYC, and either way – as the WHO has warned may be the case – antibodies/previous infection do not confer immunity, so more or less the entire population of the City remains at risk for re/infection.
Unfortunately, at present, we still have no idea to what extent either of these scenarios accurately reflects reality, or about what that reality really is. Some things, at least, we know with greater certainty, though sadly, those hard facts come in the form of deaths. Yesterday, I estimated that COVID-19 has taken the lives of ~21,000 New York City residents to date, and yesterday, also, (though it popped up in one of my feeds this morning), the New York Times put out this analysis suggesting that there have been 20,900 excess deaths in NYC since the pandemic hit us. Nice – if utterly tragic, in this instance – when the Times and I can agree about something…
Researchers from Yale’s School of Public Health found the rate of excess death in the US from March through April 4th was nearly double the official COVID-19 death toll as of the latter date, again suggesting that the actual US death toll is likely roughly twice the official figure (which currently stands above 56,000) so already well above the 100,000 US COVID-19 deaths I estimated two days ago.
As I wrote in this Tweet, about this Axios alert, “Unless someone asks the people being imprisoned themselves about their symptoms (or lack thereof), I think these results should be taken with a pound of salt”; I’ll be surprised if the rate of asymptomatic infection turns out to be, not 4 in 5 – as the Chinese study referenced above suggested – but 24 out of 25, as these results from an Ohio prison indicate. So far, at that prison – Marion – out of the ~2,000 incarcerated people infected, only four have died, thank goodness (for a 1 out of 500 or 0.2% IFR); however, I’m inclined to worry that, on the one hand – in the absence of the voices of the incarcerated individuals themselves – symptomatic cases are probably being drastically undercounted as people with milder cases simply hide/don’t talk about their fevers, chills, coughs, etc., and on the other hand, given the delays we’ve seen everywhere else between spikes in confirmed case counts and recorded deaths, we can likely expect a significant increase in mortality at Marion (and many other of the prisons across the US’s inhuman archipelago of incarceration) in the coming weeks and months.
Sadly, many prison employees have also been infected (one imagines they were the likely source of the infections in most institutions, not to engage in the often odious practice of vector shaming), which points, yet again, to how carceral institutions like prisons and immigrant detention centers serve to amplify and perpetuate infections beyond the razor-wire fences and concrete walls.
Finally, in continuing to make the connection between the logics of the crises of pandemic and climate, I’ll point to two recent pieces of scholarly work. This one – “Nonessential Research in the New Normal: The Impact of Novel Coronavirus Disease” – which notes that:
The impacts of research shutdowns will be felt long after the pandemic. Many scientists study diseases that do not share the same obvious urgency as COVID-19 and yet take a shocking toll on human life. For example, malaria infects more than 200 million people and takes the lives of nearly half a million people, mostly young children, each year. During laboratory closures and without clinical studies, there will be no progress toward treating and preventing malaria: no progress toward new drugs, vaccines, or diagnostics.
We must acknowledge the harm that will be caused by neglecting areas of research that are not tied to COVID-19 and ensure we balance our priorities to save lives. If we assume that health and medical research are essential to reduce morbidity and mortality, then every month that research is delayed will ultimately lead to in- creased suffering.
And this one – “Research is not immune to climate change” – which concludes:
It is time to call attention to the vulnerability of [climate change] research to climate change [itself] and begin to address it. Regardless of discipline, location or topic, research of all sorts is threatened by climate change in multiple ways. To reduce this vulnerability, the research sector urgently needs to begin adapting, from individual researchers and research groups, to large-scale programmes and institutions. If it does not, its value to the rest of society will be eroded, including its role as an enabler of others’ adaptation.
Both of these papers point, in neat and frightening fashion, to a corrosive truth: That failure to take commensurate action now, and in the past, only serves to undercut our future capacity to act, even as the problems we face grow rapidly worse. In short, we face something worse than a Red Queen game, a global scenario in which our ability to confront challenges steadily deteriorates even as the challenges themselves steadily mount.
I’ll close with a nod to two striking passages from Discerning Experts – a dense, tightly-written, and fascinating book on “The Practice of Scientific Assessment for Environmental Policy” – co-written by a neighbor of ours. Towards the book’s end, its authors opine, first:
The evidence presented here suggests that when scientists feel vulnerable [to political attack], they retreat from policy recommendations. Scientists in the late 20th century found themselves in a weaker position than their counterparts in midcentury, as the cultural preeminence of science declined, the postwar consensus frayed, and political polarization increased. As a result of these (and other) factors, opposition to scientific findings that challenged the status quo became increasingly well organized and well-funded. Since the 1980s, scientists have faced pushback not just in the arena of climate change but also in domains related to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, lead poisoning, tobacco, the safety of vaccinations, and other matters. (187)
This […] makes it clear that society owes a great debt to [scientists] who acted as sentinels on the ozone issue. Society needs scientists to be sentinels on issues like ozone or acid rain or climate change (or emerging epidemics) because laypeople are not in a position to appreciate these sorts of threats or in some cases even to know that they exist. (190)
Discerning Experts was published in 2019. Of the threat of “emerging epidemics,” how many of us could then have said, I “know that they exist”? As we’ve learned relative to COVID-19 – with heartbreakingly catastrophic consequences – every day we waited to act in the past means more deaths, more suffering, and more harm in the present, and more deeply curtailed possibilities for the future. Much the same can be said of climate crisis, though on a scale that makes our current global predicament look modest in comparison.
As I wrote on March 7th, in temporarily shifting the focus of this site from climate crisis to the burgeoning crisis of the pandemic: “Do I fear its potential consequences? I’m terrified. And you should be too.” What stood then for COVID-19 stands – now and indefinitely – for climate crisis many times over.
We have to care for the suffering. We have to stop the metaphorical (and actual) bleeding. We have to dislodge the thieves and fascists from power. We have to move forward in the name of justice and sanity on the basis of what we know to be true, and in search of further truths to guide us.
Death to fascism. Here’s to a better world.