A Pandemic of Bad Metaphors

We’ve gone from “quarantired” (my partner’s coinage) to “re-hopening” (my own), and while I, too, am hopeful that we won’t experience a COVID-19 backslide here in New York City, I do have real fears (see my post from yesterday, among many others) about our path forward. When Larry Brilliant warns that “[w]e have not even passed the first wave. We are early in this pandemic,” I listen (although the 5% fatality rate quoted in the linked article is almost certainly a drastic overstatement), and worrying signs are cropping up all across the United States and all over the world.

Part of the problem is widespread innumeracy. To consider some basics, as of this morning, the Hopkins tracker shows ~400,000 deaths globally and ~7,000,000 confirmed cases, but we have good empirical evidence that the infection fatality rate (IFR) for COVID-19 is probably around 1%. We also know that we’re drastically undercounting deaths. Obviously, the IFR will vary, perhaps significantly, from context to context, but using the 1% figure as a rough global average, and estimating, conservatively, that the global death toll has been underestimated by 25%, we would conclude that there have been:

400,000 * 1.25 = 500,000 actual deaths;

And that, further, there have then been:

500,000 * 100 = 50,000,000 actual infections.

Half a million deaths and 50 million cases globally sounds quite different than 400,000 deaths and 7 million cases just as, looking at New York City – where the current official City figure puts the death toll at 21,877, but the actual death toll likely stands somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 to date – official figures show “only” 204,253 confirmed cases, whereas using the 1% estimated IFR and extrapolating from the municipal death toll, we’d estimate that there have actually been 2 to 3 million infections already (which comports with results of recent serological surveys).

Why is this simple work not being done, reported in the corporate media, and incorporated into our collective thinking about the pandemic? Why do even good media outlets (like Democracy Now! – on which, to her credit, Amy Goodman religiously points out, after quoting official figures, that they almost certainly reflect a “vast undercount”) persist in quoting the official figures when we know they’re not accurate? Because they’re the only data we have? Well then, shouldn’t we at least do the simple math to properly contextualize? It is – horribly – harder to hide overflowing hospitals or mounting dead bodies than it is stealthily spreading infection, and it seems clear that we should be predicating our understanding of the extent of the disease’s spread and impact on the most, not the least, reliable indicators available to us. (David Dayen addresses similar issues in yesterday’s Unsanitized newsletter (which led me to the latest Brilliant quote); in particular, Dayen emphasizes the folly of using national trends to chart undifferentiated policy for the entire United States when conditions vary radically from locality to locality and state to state.)

One conclusion all this would lead to is that, based on New York City’s experience – even if cross-immunity or some other mitigating factor does prove to be in play, and barring drastic regional differences in susceptibility – a solid double-digit percentage of a population can become infected by SARS-CoV-2, but less than 1% of the global population has, as yet, been infected. That leaves frightening scope for ongoing explosive global spread of COVID-19. (Another is that with roughly 1/1000th or 0.1% of the world’s population, NYC has had something like 5% of the world’s COVID-19 cases to date.)

Changing topics, per Kimberlé Crenshaw, among many others, I hope we are at the outset of a Third Reconstruction in the United States, and that the third time proves the charm, to put it glibly. I’ve mostly taken a step back from opining on the uprising – as I strive simply to support the movement out of a desire that it should fundamentally reshape our politics – but continue to be concerned about what I’ll call the “revolution fetish” of some subsets of the US Left. In trying to understand the struggles of the dispossessed – whether Palestinians in Gaza, the Muslim majority of the Kashmir Valley, the Naxalites of Central India, or the Black and Indigenous peoples of the United States – with some limited exceptions, I feel it is not my place to pass moral judgment on the forms taken by their resistance/rebellion (nor would I feel inclined to so judge, even if good sense didn’t prevent me from so doing); however, for better or worse, the United States is my country, and so while I withhold moral judgment regarding actions taking during the nationwide uprising, I am uniquely interested in the uprising’s outcome, and therefore uniquely concerned with the efficacy of strategies and tactics being employed. To the extent that oppressed people in this country truly believe in armed rebellion, toward violent revolution and overthrow of the unjust US Government, I cannot fault them; however, to the extent that a lot of fruitless jargon and rhetoric continues to circulate – sans any sign of preparation, plans, clear goals, strategy, tactical know-how, etc. – about the efficacy of violence, the need for revolution, etc., I, frankly, think people advancing this language are full of shit. Revolutions have been undertaken and won, including in this country, Haiti, and – at different times and in different places – across the Hemisphere and around the world. They can be liberatory or regressive in nature, and they very often have unexpected near-, medium-, and long-term consequences, so shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. They also don’t generally succeed (witness the recent coup attempt in Venezuela) when they are less than half-assed.

People might get off on overblown rhetoric of violence, or – fatalistically – they might simply feel that Left movements or Black liberation struggles are perennially doomed to fail in this most reactionary of countries, but must, nonetheless, occasionally explode into open rebellion. As a materialist, a realist, and an anti-determinist, I see very strong reasons for fear, doubt, and skepticism, and yet every basis for rejecting fatalism and despair. Struggles, historically, have not generally been won either through rashness or hopelessness (neither through undue caution, nor through hope alone), but what I imagine none of us on the divided and fractious US Left want is to look back on these heady days and say, only, “Damn, those were some great essays” – great essays, full of sound and fury, but, in the end, signifying and advocating nothing.

Postscript: Ross Barkan has a good piece up on The Cuomo Files, which questions, “Are the Police Unions Done For?” and my friend Emily passed along this necessary piece by a number of physicians, entitled, “George Floyd’s Autopsy and the Structural Gaslighting of America.”

2 thoughts on “A Pandemic of Bad Metaphors

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