Monday, March 30, 2020

Covid-19 and Reactionary thinking

I've been tweeting a lot more. Probably because I think the world has gone a little sideways, but mostly not because of the virus. I know in times of uncertainty people have a tendency to be more fearful (I have noticed people struggle with uncertainty). Others will try to profit and superimpose their previously held viewpoints on the situation in a way that is more opportunistic and transparent than I am used to seeing. I thought this was particularly true of this NY Times piece about how as early as 2006, the United States federal government found that it was 700,000 ventilators short in the event of a pandemic. Rather than just buy more ventilators, it tried to contract with medical device companies to produce some very cheaply. Companies submitted buds, but it wasn't until 2010 (a few months after the H1N1 outbreak, so already too late for the next pandemic) that a contract was signed with a company. So it took  4 years of the government dicking around from realizing it needed 700,000 ventilators to signing a contract to procure those ventilators. Remember, design and production are still years away. 

The lowest bid was for 15% the going rate of ventilators by a very small, unproven company. Why 15%? Apparently the government really didn't feel like this emergency surplus warranted paying retail rates. To me, this is a little like (as I tweeted) leaving my car on the side of the road gasless and waiting until gas prices drop below $3 before I gas it up again. Like knowing that you don't have fire extinguishers for your 50 story building, but waiting until they go on sale for 85% off until you buy any. This alone is not the craziest part of the story to me, in terms of shocking government decisions.

$6M government dollars later, the contracted for medical device company got stalled at FDA approval in 2012 (apparently because it didn't work on infants), but the NY Times article tried to make it seem like the failure was because the company was intentionally purchased by a bigger company to stifle innovation (no sources were named to support this proposition). The contract was finally cancelled in 2014.

But now 8 years after it realized it was short 700,000 ventilators and not being able to get a single one (at least according to the NY Times), instead of just buying ventilators on the open market the federal government again chooses to contract with a medical device producer, Philips. I can't really tell from the gaps in the NY Times timeline, but I think that contract happened around 2014. Philips has also failed to produce any usable ventilator in the past 6 years. Why? The FDA: "It wasn’t until last July that the F.D.A. signed off on the new Philips ventilator, the Trilogy Evo. The government ordered 10,000 units in December, setting a delivery date in mid-2020."

The NY Times take on this, with zero facts to support their argument:

The stalled efforts to create a new class of cheap, easy-to-use ventilators highlight the perils of outsourcing projects with critical public-health implications to private companies; their focus on maximizing profits is not always consistent with the government’s goal of preparing for a future crisis.

Whoa kay! Sounds like a defamation lawsuit to me, especially since Medtronics (the parent company of the original contracting party) is not in any way a public figure under the Supreme Court standard from NY Times v. Sullivan and its progeny.

People have a lot more spicy takes nowadays. The arguments I see most from though-leaders are that these circumstances call for extreme measures, and don't worry we can just trust them that what they're saying is necessary and if we don't comply we lack empathy and are team virus and should be fined or imprisoned. At least, that's according to my local subreddit that is saying that surfers who want to still surf during this pandemic are "entitled fucking children" lacking in "empathy".

I've seen other people savagely (gleefully, I think) tear apart Richard Epstein after this New Yorker interview. Not his ideas, mind you, just him, or perhaps in fairness laser focusing on some ideas they disagree with and ignoring his other points.

I guess that's the most common thing I have seen that scares me, much more than the virus -- that people are no longer willing to attack other people's ideas, they seem to be only attacking people. And the people they attack are people who do not share the same "feelings" they do about what is happening.

Because the truth is even the data we have is extremely all over the place (even when you exclude the the Chinese data and try to account for differences in culture, etc.). If you hear anyone say that they know what is happening, you can know for a fact that there is no definite evidence to prove practically anything. We are in the extreme position of flying blind on almost every level.

So why attack each other personally and not the ideas? And here's what I mean using Epstein as an example. I think the main issue that people seemed to take with Epstein is that he said that viruses evolve, and tend to (1) evolve in response to their hosts responses and they (2) evolve to weaker strains, which I don't know anything about but a quick google turned up innumerable sources that support number 1, including this peer reviewed article from two years ago in the journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution. And again without spending too much time on this issue, I found in support of number two this and this. But read the interview, it's crazy how much of a set-up hit piece it is and how cherry-picked their own experts are to contradict Epstein. They knew ahead how they wanted to discredit Epstein, not just his ideas but to discredit him as a person. Why? Because Epstein made the mistake of asking what is the basis for all of this non-democratic action from the executive branches in this country:

Well, I’m saying in effect, by this particular point—this is not the medical side—is after you start declaring emergencies you have time for reflection and adaptation and modification, which you don’t have in a fire case. So the political point is one which essentially says, when you see governors of three major states putting out statements that their experts have said this, that, and the other thing is a result, and you don’t see the studies and you can’t question the assumption, I regard that as a serious breakdown in the political process. So my view on that particular point is I’d like to know which of these studies they’re relying on. If it’s the New York Times studies, then I thought that that study was mistaken for the reasons that I was trying to give you a moment ago, which is that as the virus becomes more apparent, adaptive responses long before government gets involved become clear.

The craziest thing is he doesn't even criticize them for acting with urgency, he just says that now that we have some down time and this is the new normal, maybe they could do us the favor of explaining what models and assumptions they're basing their decisions on.

I want this too. I'm tired of being subject to mob mentality throughout with people who appear to be (at least to me) fear driven and not thinking as well as I am used to seeing from them, but instead being reactionary and making knee-jerk decisions with lasting consequences on the spur of the moment with seemingly little before-thought. But even some of that, that's ok that's predictable, that's fine. Pandemics, I get it. But what about after thought, i.e. thought after we've jumped to decisions and conclusions about what we think is going on or should be going on? What about allowing new ideas in? What about challenging what we think we know? What about attacking ideas instead of people? What about using data instead of feelings? Can we at least agree that those precepts don't go out the window in an emergency?

Hopefully another we can get back some humility to question our own thinking and that of our leaders, lest we turn out like Hungary.


  1. The death rate is under 2%. We can't risk tanking the global economy for this. Everyone needs to take appropriate precautions, yet chill the fuck out. Why should the two be mutually exclusive?

    Also, first.

  2. I agree with you on this. It seems to me the impersonal nature of Virus in the world of me first (no Pun intended) is a factor.

    Culture in empathic groups has a part to play, Panic buying in some nations has been a problem in others it has not for example. But in the main I cocuur with you view here.

    The idea of Heard immunity was and is a logical response to a virus which has mostly minor affects. You test and then segregate the infected or vulnerable. Due to the fear based reaction of, well, Almost everyone that chance was lost. So we move to the current lock down option. Keeping distance and wearing gloves -masks mostly useless for this infection. Stay in and wait only go out when you have too. No need to bring excessive emotion into the equation. I know unrealistic, maybe is the world were actually run by sociopaths it would be better placed.

    Interesting point about the attacks on individuals not arguments, in fact any person or organisation raising concerns about changes in law. Civil liberties given up for fear of the immediate threat. UK have new laws Police can fine or arrest any one congregating or being to close. Good for now but has any thought been given to limiting the duration of this. No mention of temporary powers or review when this is over. When it is what will happen when climate protest start again, will they be used to stop these gathering, any protests?

    Not to say fear is not valid in this salutation I would regard anyone not feeling scared as a fool. But it has to be circumspect. Mob mentality also very clear issue with the same cause. People scrambling for someone to blame. Not to say there is none to go around. UK government also took part in the ventilator study with similar conclusions and same lack of action, based on money not need. The western powers for all there rhetoric to the contrary act the same.

    Interesting times and as usual the rational will save the day and the emotional will take the credit.

    The social impact will be interesting to observe. The "lowest" roles now valued the highest. The clearner doing his job will save a life. your hadge fund manager not. At least in the short term priorities may shift.

    Keep safe ME the world would be less interesting without you.

  3. In a yarn a man ate a crispy fish in an almost empty diner in an almost empty town. "They seem hysteric, and the newspapers make them more hysteric & then they go home and watch the news with hysteric faces" he thought to himself.

  4. i keep making corona jokes and no one is laughing

  5. In a fairytale a man had discovered lots of empty places to eat. He liked that. BUT: the few dinner guests that came were weird. It was as if thinking people had left & dullards with horrid tablemanners had entered. "-Does anybody realize how much I hate slurping sounds..?" the man thought to himself.

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