A note before I begin.  A lot of the ideas I’m building on here were first raised by Canadian YouTuber Dan Olson, at Folding Ideas.  Early on in the pandemic he posted this video, which planted the seeds of time frames and human perception.  If you find this article interesting, give his video a watch:

So, there’s a couple of things I’ve noticed over the more recent months of this Pandemic. Mostly with the growing ‘anti’ movement that seems hellbent on turning our society into a suicide cult. In this category we already have anti-maskers who shriek about the horrible civil-rights violation, represented by asking people to cover their faces when they’re out in public so they don’t, you know, unintentionally kill people. There’s also different varieties of anti-quarantine protesters, who object to having their favourite business shut down or working at reduced capacity so that they don’t, you know, unintentionally kill people.[1] Now that a vaccine appears immanent, we’re seeing the anti-vaxxers come out of the woodwork.

In their case, I’m going to say they’re intentionally killing people.[2]

This is not to mention the less specific quackery that we’re seeing from anti-5G nuts, anti-China/anti-Globalist/anti-Semitic[3] weirdos, and the Q-Anon cult. Right now these characters are finding an audience by jumping onto the COVID-19 conspiracy bandwagon, but they’ll no doubt find a way to continue if and when the pandemic is brought under control. Just the other day, we had a protest at Parliament Hill featuring a whole cross section of these thuds.

Sadly, the US doesn’t have a monopoly on these nut-jobs when things decide to go sideways.

Anti-Mask Protest Parliament
Anti-Maskers protest at Parliament Hill (12 Dec 2020). Note the ‘Hugs Over Masks’ sign at the podium. The stupid, it burns…

Source.

Now, the one positive thing about dealing with kooks is that, once you’re sure who you’re dealing with, you don’t have to worry about reasoning with them or being nice.  There’s no point in arguing, just tell them to fuck off.  Especially the anti-vaxxers.

The thing I’ve been having trouble with is the antis who aren’t actual kooks per se, but argue against pandemic measures in good(?) faith. This is where things get complicated, since telling someone who is in earnest to eat a bag of salted dicks could push them into the arms of the fringe weirdos.

So I had an argument a little while ago about the legal basis for quarantine laws, and how in some States of the US, different groups (libertarians in particular) are challenging the legal basis for public health measures like lock-downs and mask mandates.  In most cases, they haven’t gotten any further than they do when they claim that income tax is illegal, but in one or two cases they have managed a win.  Usually this comes from some technicality, like in some cases a State Governor can only order a lock down for X number of days before confirming it through the legislature.  Most of the time the challenge could be resolved with some quick revisions to the actual legislation, but it’s an inconvenience nevertheless.

Personally, I figured this was stupid and the people suing their government for protecting lives in a pandemic were either fools or being deliberately malicious.  The guy I was arguing with took the position that the law was the law, and if a lock down order was being improperly passed, then it was unlawful and ought to be struck down. My opinion was that people were dying, so deal with that now and fix the law later.  He argued that the law was important and there was no excuse for government trampling constitutional rights.

We didn’t come to any kind of resolution, but I still think he was wrong.  The law is meant to serve us, not the other way around.  If a law, when properly applied, results directly in avoidable deaths and suffering, then that law is wrong and needs to be struck down.  And if you’re a leader who’s allowing harm to occur and just shrugging your shoulders and saying ‘Oh well.  Can’t be helped.  The law requires it.’ then you’re a shit leader.

In the real-time scenario where you’re dealing with a public health law that got struck down by the courts?  My response would be to find any legal way possible to re-invoke the regulation that was just taken out, then quickly re-write the law so that it’s constitutionally acceptable again.  Because this is life and death.

I think part of this comes down to is the unusual time scale over which COVID-19 works.

With COVID-19, while symptoms can appear as soon as four days after exposure, it can be as long as fourteen in some cases.  However, during this time a person might still be infectious to others. From the onset of symptoms, it might be two to three weeks before the disease either fades away (most cases) or becomes serious enough to require medical attention (about 20% overall). From there, you might linger on in a hospital for a week or more before clawing your way back from the brink.  Or else you might linger for a while, then die. The TL;DR version here is that a bunch of people in Canada got their death sentences today when they got infected, but they might not know they’re infected until maybe Christmas. They won’t get hospital-level sick until probably New Years, and they won’t die until mid to late January.

Nevertheless, they’re dead. They just don’t know it yet.

When you’re teaching someone how to drive a car, there’s this concept where you need to get them to look beyond the 30m of road immediately in front of their car. The term I was taught is called “Eye-Lead Time” where you look approximately 2-3 seconds on the road ahead based on your speed (as much as 200-400m if you’re on the highway) to anticipate the flow of traffic. A person who’s not using eye-lead time will end up making dangerous last-minute corrections as hazards ‘pop up out of nowhere’ in that 30m space that they’re watching.

We naturally worry more about things that are closer rather than things that are further away.  But the driver has to learn that the things which are further away will close in at high speed, and the only way to avoid them is to act early.  It’s a counter-intuitive thing to teach someone, but the results become obvious the moment the lesson is learned. A student suddenly becomes calmer behind the wheel. They stay comfortably within their lane as the road curves, and they react to problems early and easily.

COVID-19 is outside our 30m frame of reference.  This is what makes it hard for us to understand. As Dan Olson described in the video linked above, we can wrap our heads around an emergency that lasts 48-72 hrs. Hell, we can stay awake that long if necessary to fight our way through it. But thinking a couple of weeks ahead? Planning for disease that you can’t see happening and won’t really notice before your next paycheque comes in? That’s hard.

Now, the notion that governments should have the right to enact laws to control the spread of deadly diseases has been established since before the existence of the modern nation-state. The term Quarantine derives in part from the 16th century Italian word quarantena, referring to a period of forty days that a ship would have to wait outside of a port before it would be allowed to dock.

There is a legitimate problem in that many of the quarantine laws in developed, western countries are as old as the countries themselves. This almost goes without saying, since public health is one of the reasons we have governments in the first place, so naturally quarantine laws would be among the first written. So there is a legitimate question of how these laws stack up against a modern reading of civil rights. For example, when the city of San Francisco responded to an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in 1900 by sealing off Chinatown and extending the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act, it was not only counter-productive but also deeply racist.[4]

This is why (in my personal opinion, at least) emergency legislation should be subject to regular revue and update every decade or so, as a normal part of government business.

So there is a good reason to look hard at the laws and regulations being passed, and to ask the questions of ‘Is it effective, and is it necessary?’ But when the disease works on such a large, counter-intuitive time scale, the justification for restrictive measures isn’t obvious. If there’s zombies are swarming through the streets, it’s pretty easy to explain why you should probably stay at home. But when the pandemic’s death toll is hidden from sight? Suddenly it’s not that simple.

I can’t count the number of bloggers, YouTubers, Tweets and assorted other comment sections that boil down to “Why are we locking down? We only have twenty cases in our county?” The problem is that these would be twenty identified cases. Unless your contact-tracing is 100% perfect, there’s going to be more that you haven’t discovered. And by the time you discover them, they will have infected others… To minimize the damage done, you need to head the pandemic off before it becomes bad. To do that, you need to act before the pandemic seems serious (because the time scale means it’s always worse than it currently looks), and your lock down needs to outlast the typical infection cycle of the disease in question.[5]

The other big misconception here, is what I’ve started thinking about as the anthropomorphization of COVID-19.

Catch a Third Wave
From ‘A Late Show with Stephen Colbert’: His nightly segment on the corona virus pandemic.

As I am writing this, the United States of America has hit the point where they have more people dying of COVID-19 every day, than were killed by al-Qaeda terrorists on Sept 11th 2001.

They’re having a 9/11 every day.

In response to Sept 11th, the US passed a whole slew of security laws[6] and eventually went to war in Afghanistan and later Iraq, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The thing is, for all that the attacks demanded a response, the fear that erupted in their aftermath was a massive over-reaction.

Terrorists don’t spend their every waking moment conspiring against America, or even ‘the West.’ For all the alarmist talk of those frightening days (and to be fair, they were frightening) the terrorist threat wasn’t nearly as devastating as the response would eventually prove.

A virus, on the other hand?

A virus does nothing other than replicate and spread. It has no mind of its own, and arguably it’s not even alive technically. It literally has nothing else to do, and since this particular virus has proven well-adapted to the human host, it can run rampant through the population without difficulty.

A terrorist on the other hand? Even the most vicious, American flag-burning, freedom-hating stereotype has to sleep at some point. Has to eat. Often they will have family to care for as well, and once in a while their family needs might take over from their terrorizing ways. As much as some of them hate America, I’m willing to bet that they’re not usually thinking about this when they’re sitting on the toilet.

Even when they’re awake and focused, they’re likely to have other problems. Right now the US and Canada are supplying weapons to the government of Saudi Arabia for use in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Because of this, I’m willing to bet there are a lot of Houthis who would love to set off a bomb in Washington DC or Ottawa out of revenge. Are they going to, though? Probably not, because on a day to day basis they are too busy fighting off the Saudi invasion.[7] The same goes for al-Qaeda, Palestinian radicals, the remnants of ISIS, the various factions of the Taliban and who knows what else is out there.

Much as in our example of the student driver, life is the thing that happens while you’re busy making other plans. For the most part, human beings aren’t very good at looking past their own immediate problems.  They have to be taught to engage with a bigger picture.

But what about something that isn’t alive?[8]  The corona virus is everything we feared that the terrorists could be.

I’m not entirely sure how to engage with somebody who’s making the error of assigning disease-like qualities to human beings, and human qualities to a disease. Especially when they’re making the civil-rights argument in response to the health measure, but staying suspiciously silent for all those dubious security laws (that’s a whole other can of worms I’m glad I didn’t open that night).

The only thing I can think to say is: “It’s not about what’s right in front of us. It’s what’s further down the road.”

***Just as a side-note, I’m not accusing Stephen Colbert of spreading ignorance about COVID-19.  He’s taking this shit seriously, and I am grateful to him for it.  I included this picture in the post because, for all the good he’s doing, he’s also got the most well-known example of a humanized corona virus.***

_______________________

[1] In this particular field, I can spare some sympathy for business owners who find themselves unsupported and going out of business. That’s a genuine crisis that can ruin lives. It’s also why I’m in favour of government support for such businesses (as well as individuals) so they can remain closed without going broke.

[2] This is why it’s a bad thing to humour anti-science crazies. Just don’t.

[3] An important thing to always remember about these xenophobic global conspiracies: Sooner or later, it’ll come back around to the Jews. When they finally mention the Jews, you’ve likely reached the toxic centre of whatever their belief system is.

[4] For those who can’t figure these things out, here’s a hint: At an absolute minimum, your health measures should actually…you know…help the people who are in danger of dying! If you’re not achieving this bare minimum standard, you done fucked up.

[5] This is another area where necessary restrictions seem counter-intuitive and excessive. In my Province (Ontario) lock downs are being ordered in 28-day blocks. The idea being that anyone who got infected the day before the lock down goes into effect would have had time to progress to being symptomatic and either recovering or going through hospitalization by the time it was over.

[6] Some of questionable value. I remember travelling to the US as part of a military exercise in 2002. Despite being uniformed CAF members travelling under a NATO travel order, we all had to take our boots off to go through the metal detector at the airport thanks to that shoe-bomber asshole.

[7] As of late there have been a number of missile and drone attacks against oil tankers again in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, suggesting that the Houthis are willing to reach out and hit back, but their reach can only extend so far.

[8] This is another reason why dehumanizing language is not just wrong, but dangerous. If you start treating your enemy like vermin, you’ll have a harder time predicting their human reactions.

2 thoughts on “Eyes Front! – Some further thoughts about this pandemic

  1. Hey, some thoughts on this:

    1. I am happy that you are back and continuing your deconstruction.

    2. Towards the virtue of litigation against “reasonable” laws: It may seem absurd to challenge a law which serves an important purpose on formal grounds alone. But as a someone who has to deal with legal procedures for a living, let me tell you: Formalities matter. Another word for formalities is due process and even in a constitutional state, they serve an important role in guaranteeing personal liberties by forcing the state to act lawfully instead of simply doing what he deems right.

    I often hear people complain that formal procedures just slow things down, but in nearly all cases I know there are ways to speed things up built into the system without the need to break the law. In fact, I often hear this arguments brought forwards by politicians after a court struck down a law on formal reasons. I believe it is important to keep in mind that in those cases (i) the courts do not act in bad faith, meaning a law struck down on formal reasons violates higher ranking laws and (ii) the formalities are normally easy enough to fulfill, meaning that laws struck down for their violation have unnecessary flaws. Those flaws are a sign of bad “craftsmanship” by the civil servants who drafted them and who’s job it is to make sure due process is observed.

    Plus, at least in the legal systems I am familiar with, courts can set a date until which a law, although formally illegal, is still in effective, to avoid harm to the public interest and thereby allowing the legislator to fix his previous mistake.

    3. In addition to people inability to properly react to events not really noticeable by now (hello climate change), a specific problem regarding pandemics is that humans are incredible bad at the effects of exponential growth. That’s why people are often so surprised how cases numbers can escalete so quickly and why there might be 10.000 cases now even though there were just 100 a month ago. People rely on heuristics and heuristics work just fine in most cases, but usually not towards exponential growth. Just to give you an example, try to answer the following question as quickly as possible, with the first answer that comes to mind:

    If you have waterlilies in a large pond which double in size every day and if your pond is completely overgrown after twenty-eight das, after how man days was half of the pond overgrown?

    I fancy myself in believing to be someone who is rather good at abstract thinking, but the first number that crossed my mind was fourteen. The human mind is lazy and tends to use heuristics to answer questions instead of using the hard way of actually thinking things through…

    Like

    1. 1) It’s good to be back. Thanks!
      2) I agree formalities are important. That’s why I’m in favour of updating emergency laws on a regular basis; it keeps up from having to go back to some nightmare legislation like the Warmeasures Act when something unexpectedly escalates. The big issue I got in the case of COVID challenges is that they’re often getting made in bad faith. We’re not talking about people pointing out civil rights’ issues as a way of producing better, more just laws. It’s more of a “find a loophole, then immediately take off running so you can hug people and spit in their mouths (or something).”
      Part of the issue is that civil rights (as expressed by bad faith actors) are clashing with public health measures that have a direct impact on people’s lives (and straight up survival). Most of the time, it’s “survival” that’s an abstract concept while the civil rights are real, immediate and tangible. Like “tough on crime” laws passed in response to an imagined crime wave that ends up over policing minority neighbourhoods instead. Crime rates aren’t being effected, but the cops are busting the heads of anyone who ‘looks suspicious.’
      In Canada, we do have a system in place where a law that is struck down can remain in effect so that the government can fix it. It’s one of the things that keeps me from completely losing my mind some days.
      3) Yeah, exponential growth is counter-intuitive. I almost said 14 as well for your example. It took me a moment’s thought to realize it was 27…

      Like

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