One doesn’t know what to believe, does one?
The nature and consequences of the novel coronavirus defy easy comprehension and demonstrate what we frequently observe in other matters: the eye-rolling reality of conflicting expert opinions, not to mention the kibitzing of non-experts. Some say the lockdowns are necessary to prevent the spread of the disease, and, therefore, America must remain closed; others say that, without a vaccine, we can’t stop the spread of the disease – we can only slow its progression. And slowing it only prolongs the crisis.
This reminds me of two things. The first is #1 among scholar Robert Conquest’s three laws of politics: “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” This is true of scientists of all kinds. The second is the way one paleontologist described the tension at one scholarly conference: some attendees asserted dinosaurs were cold-blooded, like reptiles, and others insisted the beasts were warm-blooded, like birds. So great was the disagreement that the two groups sat apart at this meeting, barely able to acknowledge each other’s presence.
This is true of paleontologists, epidemiologists, and politicians. As a layman, I find this troubling, and it reminds me of a night in a bar when I was in college and a friend plopped down on the stool next to me.
“You know what?” he said, “I’ve had it!”
I frowned and shook my head.
“It’s philosophy,” he explained. “One week we study Aristotle, and I’m an Aristotelian. Then we jump ahead to Sartre, and I’m an existentialist! What am I supposed to do?”
“Have another beer,” I suggested. Never an entirely wrong solution.
Early on during Our Plague (as I’ll hereinafter refer to COVID-19), I saw this Facebook post (the first reference is to the Senate impeachment trial): “Last week all my friends were experts in constitutional law; this week they’re all epidemiologists.”
The assault of information, misinformation, and disinformation is a kind of psychic mugging, and many of us feel like we’re staggering in a dark alley after thugs have taken our wallets and smartphones. Actually, although I wouldn’t want to lose my cash and credit cards, I’m about ready to surrender my phone – and TV and laptop – to the first thief who comes along. Anything to stop Our Plague overload!
And yet, each of us has to make a choice; to say of this or that expert: this is the one I trust. And we hope that a few days later, like my barstool buddy, we won’t get flipped by yet another expert.
My go-to expert is Dr. Jay Bhattacharya. He’s at Stanford University where he is a professor of medicine and where he earned his M.D. degree as well as a Ph.D. in economics. As his bio states: “His research focuses on the constraints that vulnerable populations face in making decisions that affect their health status, as well as the effects of government policies and programs designed to benefit vulnerable populations.”
I’ve learned a lot from three “Uncommon Knowledge” interviews host Peter Robinson has done with Dr. Bhattacharya. You can watch the third by clicking here.
Bhattacharya makes three compelling points:
1) Lockdowns, which may have the short-term effect of “flattening the curve,” will not actually stop (but only delay) the spread of the disease;
2) there has never been a vaccine developed for any of the coronaviruses we’ve previously faced (neither SARS nor MERS); and
3) lockdowns are almost surely creating serious, secondary pathologies (social and economic) that may actually lead to more deaths than if we’d not locked down in the first place, since – by the logic of 1) and 2) – we’re going to get those deaths from Our Plague at some point anyway.
I hasten to add that the good doctor believes there are vulnerable subsets within the population that should be quarantined: the elderly and those with various comorbidities. Whether such isolation should be a matter of law or conscience is a matter of debate. As one who is practically the poster boy for comorbidity (over-70, heart disease, previous cancer treatments, diminished lung capacity), I know what I, personally, must do without being told by President Trump or Governor Cuomo.
Of course, nature and Nature’s God may spare us. Our Plague might, like the extraterrestrial pathogen in Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel, The Andromeda Strain, simply mutate to become non-lethal. As you might guess, I’m not betting on that.
Many Americans – including some of the bravest – are frightened. Many in authority have told us to be frightened. SARS and MERS scared us, but neither virus brought us to our knees the way Our Plague has.
As James Matthew Wilson puts it in the penultimate stanza of “On Being Ill”:
The weight of weakness hangs from every hour
And all the future’s qualified by phrases
Suggesting that, if it should really come,
It will be on the far side of a passage
Through a cold room, where one sits gowned in paper.
But then—strange thing—for those who do get better
(And almost all will, for a little while)
They leave behind not only all their studies
But even memory of what they’ve suffered.
It appears we’re about to return to normal life, and some may leave behind what we’ve learned or think we’ve learned, if we’ve learned anything at all.
I’ve learned (and this seems to be what God has been showing me lately) that I love my wife and she loves me. I don’t know, maybe that’s just another way of saying that during quarantine we haven’t tried to kill one another. No, it’s more, much more than that.
May God guide all of us in the weeks to come, which He will if we will recollect Him in every loving thing we do. Brothers and sisters, you are in my prayers. Live, but live wisely.
Image: Rainbow over the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, 1900 [Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC]
Today, of course, is Memorial Day. If you haven’t had enough of me, consider clicking through to a column I wrote for the holiday in 2016. -Brad