Post #683: One thing to be thankful for

Posted on May 6, 2020

Above:  Wuhan, China, daily new cases following total lockdown, from WHO report, as summarized in Post #551.

Above:  Total new cases, Virginia, following executive orders of the Governor, starting with the closing of schools in mid-March, partial closure of businesses, and closure of all non-essential retail businesses.

Above:  The Virginia graph in full perspective — blue is the time period of the prior graph, red is what has happened since then.

Who’s winning, who’s not, among US states?

The point of the graphs above is that some things — such as a total lockdown in Wuhan — work.  And some things — such as our half-hearted restrictions in Virginia, as implemented by our population — don’t.  Or, at least, haven’t yet.  Going on two months, we have not yet achieved the peak in daily case growth that Wuhan observed in 12 days.

And that really should not be all that surprising, to see a more nebulous response from a more nebulous set of policies.  It wasn’t until I pulled the employment data (Post #629) that I came to realize just how large a fraction of all retail activity remains open to the public.  And every time I go out into some enclosed space like a grocery store, I goggle at the fact that many people — including at-risk elderly people — won’t wear a mask.

Only a couple of states have achieved zero or near-zero daily new cases, per this excellent set of graphs at the New York Times.  After looking at them, I’m not sure there are any clear lessons for Virginia.  Remote and rural Montana appears to get maybe one new case every other day, but they only had 400 total cases.  A far more urbanized Hawaii is about at that point, but again, with just 600 total cases.

When I eyeball the Times graphs, I come up with this map of the US (below)The green states below never really had that many cases, and now appear well past their peak daily infection rate. These are uniformly low-population-density rural states.  The blue states had high infection rates, but appear to have passed their peak daily new infection rate.  These are mostly states with highly urbanized areas.  The red states are those where daily infection rates continue to ramp up, with no sign of a plateau so far.  And everybody else is plateau-ish.  Daily new infections may not be falling significantly, but at least there is some sort of plateau evident in the NY Times graphs.


It’s hard to see any pattern in that, other than being remote and rural is a good thing, in this case.  Beyond that, I’m tempted to say that this is the luck of the draw.  Or highly state-specific behavior.  In any case, there’s not much of a pattern.

But you can always make it worse.

At this point, it’s not clear that there is any path to making this situation any better.  Certainly not from any quick study of the states.

If we look abroad, some countries have succeeded in getting daily new cases close to zero, including (e.g.) Australia and New Zealand, China, South Korea, and a handful of others.  But it’s not clear how we could, at this point, emulate those nations, given the large number of missteps in the US so far, and the extent of the disease.

But, this being America, of course you can find the usual suspects, hard at work at making this worse.  Any news website, you can find the usual click-bait centering around our various batshit-crazy subcultures:  the right-wing conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxers, gun nuts, survivalists, and the like.  The cast of characters that adds a touch of color to an otherwise slow news day.

The folks who proudly have not even the slightest grasp of basic science or arithmetic.  And who do not play well with others.

In some cases, we’re getting outright mob rule by the nut-cases.  Famously, at least one US city rescinded a mandatory mask order because armed individuals threatened the store employees who tried to enforce the ordinance.  As a gun owner myself, I’d have thought that threatening someone with a firearm was the crime.  But apparently concerns for public safety trump common notions of justice.  I.e., if the mob is going to get violent, you arguably get fewer net deaths by giving in to the mob.

The upshot is that reason, logic, and justice are sometimes simply no match for totally focused irrationality.  Like dealing with your two-year-old.

Which leads me to the curious role that various religious communities are playing.  So far, it appears that large, mainstream religions have largely been helpful in containing the spread of this.  A lot of the Christian denominations just plain shut down for Easter, which is a pretty big deal.

And this generally cooperative approach makes sense, in that almost all mainstream religions have a large “golden rule” component.  Plus, from a purely business sense, few want to be in the business of killing off their customers.  Both compassion and reason put most of them squarely in the camp of cooperating with whatever scheme seems likely to result in the fewest US deaths.

So far, the trouble-makers among the U.S. faith community have largely been at the fringes — in every sense of the word.  The occasional personality-cult mega-church.  The occasional small sect or splinter group.  Some mix of those who merely want to be open for business, laced with a handful of people who truly seem to believe that their god or gods will protect them.

But nothing that would come close to having a national impact.

Which is why I’d like to highlight what would happen if that should change, by looking at the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia.  (I won’t get into it, but inside Russia, that’s the official state church.  Outside of Russia, that’s simply another faith.)

There, for the official state church of Russia, official position by many of the clergy seems to be that religious belief confers viral immunity.  And they are acting aggressively on that premise.  And anyone who doesn’t agree with that is being labeled a heretic.

You can read news reports of that in the New York Times.  Apparently, Russian Orthodox churches remain open in many regions.  Just a handful of key quotes:

" ...  others preach that it is impossible to become infected in a church, or threaten damnation for those who enforce or obey the restrictions.  ... declared that ringing church bells was the best way to combat the pandemic ...  coronavirus ... is “not coincidental but is linked to the coronation and enthronement of the Antichrist ...  part of a satanic plot aided by Jews.

And, unsurprisingly,  the Russian Orthodox church has become a conduit for spread of coronavirus (per this reference).  In one instance, they had to seal off a town because the local monastery had become such a hotbed of infection (reference).

I found this to be quite heartening.   Sometimes I think the US owns the market segment labeled “batshit crazy people”.  So it’s a refreshing change to see some other major world power burdened with their own version of the same.  It (almost) puts a smile on my face to see that all-too-familiar toxic combination of magical thinking plus hate-based conspiracy theories — somewhere other than the U.S.A.

In short, it was a nice change to see that there are truly dangerously out-to-lunch people in every country. Not just here.

And my take-away from that is that you really can’t let them run the show.   Or you’ll end up with a situation that they are now facing in Russia.  Even as our local gun-slingers have managed to kill a mask ordinance, local priests and bishops in the Russian sphere have negated any instructions to take measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.  With the result that the single largest organized religion in Russia is a major conduit for coronavirus infection.

Contrast that with the measured, thoughtful, and reality-based approaches being taken by mainstream U.S. faith communities, and you realize that we really dodged a bullet in that regard.  No doubt churches will be re-opening in many states, principally those with Republican governors.  But unlike Russia, our largest churches mostly appear well aware of the risks, and appear ready to act accordingly.  And that’s something to be thankful for.