June 5, 2020
David Wagner, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Social Work, award-winning author*
This short piece discusses the vast exaggeration of the CO-19 “epidemic” so far and the manner in which the numbers are inflated. Importantly, the actions taken to “protect” the public are in all likelihood going to leave more death and heartache than the epidemic itself. Likely reasons for the government-media-corporate-medical construction of the epidemic are considered, and the result will be an increased power of elites and institutions of our society over the mass of people.
This may be the mass epidemic that wasn’t! Actually, the grab for even more social control over people by government, mass media, corporations, and medicine are what has occurred, and it is unlikely to recede even after the “epidemic.”
First, I will talk a quick look at the data, then review various problems which have been pointed out with how the data is presented, and finally what are the motivations of those in power. No one suggests that this a conspiracy, however, common aims of government, mass media and others in power established a very quick readiness to resort to extreme measures to control the populations. This contrasts with some other nations in the world such as Sweden and Vietnam, for example.
On June 5, 2020 the world population is 7.8 billion of which today we have 6,694,512 people are infected. Many Americans have “innumeracy” in which a presentation of raw numbers does not actually register as high or low and people are mesmerized by headlines like “23 more people die in LA County (which is not high for the largest county in the USA). But in actuality, the world rate of CO-19 as a percentage of the population is .00085 which means a tiny percentage of the world has been affected (as we will note the inclusion of “recoveries” which may be the largest group of people makes this even less large). In the USA, which has the highest number of cases in the world, still of our 333,939, 558 people, we have as of today 1,917,101 cases of Coronavirus which is .0057 meaning 57 people per thousand are affected. It is not to make light of any suffering to say this is no Bubonic or Black Plague, and in fact it is no “Spanish flu” as affected the world in 1918.
For comparison the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 affected more than a third of the world’s people compared to the .00085 now, a huge difference. In the United States 28% were infected compared to the .0057 with Coronavirus. Comparing a real pandemic with the CO-19 is like comparing cancer to a serious cold.
Even with this there are a great many unknowns in the way the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control) handles this data. One interesting point is the tables printed in my newspapers always spell out those recovered from the virus. The numbers recovered are quite substantial and we know that many young people in particular have gotten the virus and after some days been healthy. But the gap between deaths and recovered is enormous: on June 5 when 1.9 million people were confirmed cases, 439, 194 were listed as recovered. The first question in my mind is why add in to a figure of an epidemic the people who have recovered? We rarely see this with medical data. But secondly the numbers of deaths and recoveries leaves over 1.3 million people unaccounted for. We can expect that many more have recovered, and some number (undetermined in most statistics) are in the hospital or nursing homes or other care facilities or in quarantine. Without this information, it really is quite difficult to say if the virus has seriously affected this large number of people or not.
A second consideration is that since the largest number of victims of CO-19 are among the elderly and ill, particularly those who “had underlying conditions” we need to understand how the data was collected and assessed. The CDC itself (see National Center for Health Statistics “Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19, May 29, 2020), admits this is quite difficult because when a patient has underlying conditions, his or her death may be from a combination of things. The CDC states cause of death is “usually based on the underlying cause of death” such as respiratory diseases, circulatory diseases, malignant neoplasms and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In indicating there may be “false positives” and “false negatives” (that is people may be reported as being ill with CO-19 but are not, and/or they may not be recorded as having CO-19 as a result of the other conditions. But there is no reason to assume these “false” diagnoses equal themselves out. First off, the CDC and other health establishments has been promoting the dangers of the disease so it is for them not laymen to determine this. Second, with the incredibly constant and wide advocacy of the disease’s spread, it seems likely some elderly and ill people are being misdiagnosed with it. I have been told but cannot confirm that some nurses have told in nursing homes to label deaths as CO-19. With all the attention to it, it becomes the disease du jour.
Finally, in order to determine the impact of any serious medical issue we can’t simply take these raw numbers or even percentages and know what to make of them. As the CDC agrees, we need a measure of “excess deaths.” Clearly however long Coronavirus has lasted let us say starting in February and through current, many thousands of people die in the United States. How many died last year and the year before? The change in population must also be added in. So, to use easy numbers if 100 people died in your city last year, and 150 this year, and we determine the population growth was only another five people, we are on the way to a real measure of concern e.g. it looks like at least 45 people (a high percent) are excess deaths. But if the death toll was 99 last year and 102 this year with a population increase of 9 people, then we have little cause to suspect “excess deaths.”
The CDC has numerous tables on its websites with an algorithm it uses to calculate excess deaths. However, after literally hundreds of pages, there are no conclusions. The figures come from districts throughout the nation, and to a layman’s eyes, the only areas showing a significant excess death are in the highest areas of the disease such as New York and New Jersey. Many states have district after district with no significant change or such a slight change (.1) as to be statistically unmeaningful. Since the CDC is national and proclaims this a national emergency. how does it asses the excess deaths for the whole nation? Will the toll in the few high states make for excess deaths nationwide? Stay tuned.
“Protecting the Nation”
The action to “protect” against CO-19 may kill as many people as the disease. The most critical issue is unemployment which despite some official records (the US government does not count a large number of the unemployed) may well be at 20% of the population. Professor Harvey Brenner, a Professor at the School of Public Health, is one of the nation’s experts on unemployment and health. Brenner’s research on unemployment has shown a 1% rise in unemployment levels leads to a 1% rise in deaths as well as a host of negative events such as a rise in heart disease, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and family breakup. Theoretically and we don’t how long the unemployment will last, it is conceivable particularly since many companies and even public and non-profit employers have indicated they will not rehire people that the unemployment rate at 3.5% in February (officially) may well stay at a rate of 10% for the year following the end of the virus. If this were true, then the deaths in the USA (not from CO-19) would rise from 2, 744, 248 by almost 200,000 to 2,922,624.
But the lockdown management of the CO-19 crisis has many effects we cannot even begin to estimate. It is hard to remember a situation in the USA including war or disaster, in which all community and group activities (school, sports, religious services, workplaces, restaurants, music concerts, on and on) have been closed. If the shutdown were a week then perhaps this would not be serious, but we are now in week 12 of our lockdown in California. Although a few things have re-opened, they are so minimal in number and so limited in scope (e.g. you can go to a barber with a mask covering your face for the length of time and may be examined before attending to your haircut, and because of social distancing only one person at a time may be in some stores). The damage to people from this social control is inestimable. I know a youngster who is so frustrated by having no school and little access to his friends he is depressed, and angry that the plan in Los Angeles is to open school only two days next year. My own wife became ill during the lockdown, and basically had almost no medical care for a serious condition. How physicians were allowed (at least in California) to leave work, and stay home while hundreds of thousands of nurses and aides treated patients is incredible even if they were expected to be doing work by phone and videoconference. There are tons of examples which I see every day; I met a neighbor, a very engaging middle-age woman, but when I asked her how she was she told me tearfully she was being likely laid off (from a middle class professional post) and her boyfriend of several years was leaving her. Welcome to 2020 America!!
In contrast there are nations that did not employ anything like the USA strategy of locking its people in. One of the most successful was Vietnam which although it has a population of nearly 100, 000, 000 had zero deaths from CO-19 and only 329 cases! The officials caught the disease early and set up quarantines in a number of locations (a number of other Asian countries used quarantines). The word may sound scary to Americans, but in Vietnam the people quarantined were fed and aided with their needs as a service, not detained. Lately, Sweden has come under criticism for not imposing a stricter lockdown (they did ban large crowds and closed some schools, but not the array of workplaces and community gatherings we did in the USA). So, what is the fuss? Sweden has 10.1 million people with 43,887 CO-19 cases and 4,656 deaths (as of 6/5/20). These percentages are hardly astounding: both are in the .004 range or four per thousand. The propaganda by the media, government, and medicine shows not only a strong brand of defensiveness but a contempt of other countries that is common in the USA. Brazil has been another country criticized but its statistics are also comparable to the USA or less.
What Happened and Why?
It is perhaps too soon to evaluate all the causes of the 2020 “moral panic” about CO-19. Sociologists consider an event a “moral panic” when the reaction is far out of proportion to the events, and when social, political, and economic causes are likely responsible for the reaction. There are many sociological accounts of moral panics, with missing children (a panic which led to the placement of missing kids on milk cartons in the 1980s); child sexual abuse (a cause celebre of the 1980s that led to many trumped up charges particularly in day care centers; “crack babies,” which physicians and scientists declared were doomed at birth, only to find out years later that while a problem, they had no more serious problems than other low income babies; and the AIDS epidemic in which after a few years of biased coverage blaming gays and Haitians and others, went by the late 1980s to campaign against “heterosexual AIDS” declaring “anyone can get AIDS.” Similar to current events, some scientists and physicians declared AIDS could hit 25% of the US population (again its impact was limited, and, oddly, the African epidemic which was much more serious than other continents were not predicted).
Nevertheless, we can posit several reasons why the United States is particularly subject to moral panics (and apocalyptical thinking) and why it’s occurred at this time. First, the United States is a highly risk aversive place. Perhaps because of the increased life expectancy and health of the Americans (at least until recently) there is a sense that we can all avoid accidents, disasters, illnesses, and ultimately death, at least until we are ripely old age. A sense of entitlement certainly prevails and when someone announces a risk it appears to the mass media, government, and perhaps most citizens as a shock. Secondly, the extensive liability culture of America, the most litigious nation in the world is at work. When the CO-19 virus became noticed and the first lockdowns came, every state, county and city government as well as corporations and businesses and non-profits followed in order. In some cases, government entities forced those beneath them to shut down (or at least threatened) and in some cases, despite the uncertainty of law, they threatened businesses or organizations that were tempted to not adhere. But generally, throughout most of the nation, the institutions fell like a deck of cards, and I do not believe either simple obedience or altruism explains it. In this nation any company or government, any library or community center faces a lawsuit if they kept open. Currently, the cruise lines of Carnival and Princess Lines are being sued as a class action lawsuit by 2,800 passengers who are accusing it of “gross negligence” for its actions during the CO-19 spread. This no doubt will be one of many suits. In the USA, the distinction of government and private sector and non-profit is far more minimal then presented since they are symbiotic sectors, dependent on one another, and are all subject to major court action in a disease or crisis.
But there are serious and less manifest reasons for the joining of government, mass media, corporations, and medicine in a coordinated constant campaign which in many ways dwarfed some of our recent historical crises from HIV/AIDS to Al-Qaeda and the War on Terror. *Several objectives made the closing of offices, businesses, and even government and nonprofit programs desirable. Corporate business is always eager to cut its labor costs, and the opportunity particularly at what was a time of low unemployment and potential higher wages and salaries ideal. Many workers in a large number of industries have been told their jobs will not return- good news for the businesses and Wall Street, though of course not for workers and small business. Some of this cut comes with the second agenda: converting more jobs to automation and to cyberspace, including medicine and related human services and education to an on line form which will be cheaper (although perhaps poorer in quality). The quickness with which a vast number of offices and businesses moved to online forms which were not familiar to many consumers or clients is amazing.
In the absence of some countervailing labor unrest or social movements, the changes hastened by the 2020 CO-19 epidemic will be here for a good with more people’s jobs lost and continued less personal contact and community in our nation.
References available on request, all medical data from CDC and daily COV-19 reports.
- It is hard to compare since of course the HIV-AIDS scare and the War on Terror went on far longer than the virus has been around. However, I do not recall that the mass media focus so totally on one subject for so long. Certainly AIDS did not, and except for the period after 9/11 the terrorism did not dominate every section of the newspaper.