Covid is Real. Agamben is Right.
The Tension in Pandemic Policy
I’m not here to opine on how a pandemic “becomes political” or some other such nonsense. What I am here to do is to lay out a tension between two viewpoints, both correct, which both need to be accepted if we are to have meaningful policy discussion:
Covid is real.
Agamben is right.
It speaks to how utterly detached we have become from history and the world that a fairly common historical occurrence (pandemic) cannot be conceptualized as anything other than a bioweapon or a hoax, as opposed to a simple brute force of nature.
I am going to lay out some basic resources regarding understanding COVID (no MSM because they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about), then touch on Agamben’s argument and why he is correct, and then explain a set of policies to move on from this deadlock.
Covid is Real
The virus that causes Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, is a member of the betacoronavirus genus alongside SARS-CoV (which causes SARS), MERS-CoV (which causes MERS), and 2 other viruses that infect humans: OC43 and HKU1 which typically cause common colds although more severe illnesses are possible (just with much lower frequency than the first three).
Initially believed to be solely a respiratory illness (like the other illnesses caused by betacoronaviruses that infect humans), SARS-CoV-2 has become associated with a wide variety of systemic, and at times just odd, symptoms, including neurological, cardiovascular, and even dermatological ones (the dreaded "Covid toe"). Systemic inflammation also appears to be presenting in people, including children suffering from outcomes as nasty as "toxic shock syndrome".
The virus becomes exponentially deadlier as age increases, bearing a fatality rate roughly equal to the flu in children and then rapidly becoming significantly more deadly than the seasonal flu as age increases.
(The graph below is a LOGARITHM graph - a straight line on a logarithm graph represents exponential growth)
Pre-existing conditions absolutely do play a role. The virus is deadlier in men than in women (because, believe it or not…covid may be stored in the testicles…true story). Racial disparities in fatality rate exist but it is unclear if this is due to genetic factors, group differences in prevalence of pre-existing conditions, or simply disparities in access to quality health care and other economic factors.
To understand how many people coronavirus kills, there are two factors: CFR (Case Fatality Rate) and IFR (Infection Fatality Rate):
CFR is easy to compute because cases are, effectively, the infections that we see. They include people smart (or paranoid...or rich) enough to get tested regardless of symptoms and people who got tested because of symptoms. Cases are infections that we see. SO to calculate CFR you simply divide the number of deaths from the virus by the number of cases and voila! The issue, of course, is that most illnesses aren’t universally so severe (or so blatantly obvious like a skin condition might be) that everyone gets tested. There are asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic people (as well as people with severe symptoms who just never went to the hospital for whatever reason). So, to calculate the Infection fatality rate, we need to estimate how many people have gotten the virus. There are ways to do this (widespread testing, usually antibody/serology testing, or modeling are the main ones) and from there we can begin to develop a projected infection fatality rate.
The IFR appears to be hovering around 0.5-0.75%. In other words, for every 10,000 people infected with the virus, whether they get tested or not and regardless of their age, between 50 and 75 will die. Higher estimates appear to be due to age variation almost entirely. Two last points:
Yes, people die from COVID not with COVID. That particular cope has the same energy as going “ackshually no one on the Titanic died from the iceberg, they died from the water!” Context and causation are important.
Who Should I follow for Good Covid-19 Updates?
The MSM is a joke.
I compiled a Twitter list of ~40-50 epidemiologists, statisticians, and public health professionals who I follow for updates. Their politics aren’t always…well, good at all…but when it comes to the virus, they know what they’re talking about. Just ignore anything political. Mute the words if needed.
Agamben is Right
I can’t read Italian, so I’m going to be using an NYTimes report on the translation of Agamben’s coronavirus-related work. Yes, I know, the NYTimes sucks and I don’t trust them, but I’m also terrible at learning languages so here we are.
I am going to lay down a couple summaries of Agamben’s position. Attached here is a pdf of two translated works of Agamben related to coronavirus and biopolitics, translated into English.
From the abstract of that pdf (emphasis my own):
Essentially, what served to inflame opinion was the – possibly misconstrued – perception that Agamben claimed governments used Covid-19 to generate a false sense of panic and instigate an artificial state of exception inwhich rulers could enforce legislation which would otherwise have been out of question.
Among Agamben’s key claims is that it is not as if governments are using the pandemic to stage an artificial state of exception, but that this exceptional state has already been instituted. For example, [he] writes, would we not have accepted that our dying would be kept away from their families, or that our dead would be buried insecrecy had it not been for the triumphant argument of Covid-19. It is as if, Agamben writes, the Church itself has come to ignore that among its principal duties is to visit and care for the sick. Has the Church forgotten “that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith and that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing faith”? The reason for this state of affairs is, according to Agamben, that we now live in a time governed by quite a different religion, namely that of science, and it is in the furtherance of this novel religion that it is possible to say that it is right and rational to abandon the principles of mercy and charity on the altar of an abstract notion of risk.
From the NYTimes piece (emphasis my own, again):
The emergency declared by public-health experts replaces the discredited narrative of “national security experts” as a pretext for withdrawing rights and privacy from citizens. “Biosecurity” now serves as a reason for governments to rule in terms of “worst-case scenarios.” This means there is no level of cases or deaths below which locking down an entire nation of 60 million becomes unreasonable. Many European governments, including Italy’s, have developed national contact tracing apps that allow them to track their citizens using cellphones.
Agamben is correct. The language of “War on X” is transforming into “X as Public Health Crisis.” This is simply new branding for the ever-expanding encroachment of the State into the private lives of its citizens, stripping them of their rights. The institution of perverse changes, perhaps of a “great reset”, use the pandemic as an excuse. “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
If we want to address the Coronavirus pandemic, which is a real pandemic with devastating effects if left unchecked (>2 million dead Americans if we let it run its course, and thats assuming immunity is long lasting which may be the case but isn’t certain), we need to bear in mind Agamben’s points. Because he is right.
Where to Go From Here? Building a Better Pandemic Policy
Policies only work if compliance is held. Lockdowns work when done effectively. But they do not work when done improperly.
Understand: A lockdown, done properly, is acute. A chronic lockdown is demonstrative of an utter failure by the government. A lockdown should NEVER be chronic. Nor should you have to do one every few weeks. These are failures.
At this point, social capital is shot. Less than half of all Americans are willing to comply with a lockdown. And good for them! Lockdowns are stupid.
While there is evidence that school closures and home confinement work, they each come with very bad consequences. Lockdowns likely have efficacy as well, but their consequences are myriad and terrible.
So no school closures or lockdowns.
Border control has demonstrated efficacy, and I want to actually expand this further:
A key pathway to controlling a pandemic is network severance. Restricting travel and who can get in/out is key.
When I talk about networks, I am referring (broadly) to the people you come into physical contact with (whether regularly or occasionally).
You want to sever network connections and make networks as small as possible. This prevents transmission. In that manner, setting up more borders rather than less is the way to go.
My radical proposal: Shut down non-essential interstate travel in the U.S. and completely shut international borders
If you need to go to work, or you have a doctor’s appointment, or you need to assist a family member, you can travel. Otherwise, allow states to control their own spread without re-introducing new infections from travellers.
Combining this with quarantine for those who test positive (and a mandatory 14 day quarantine for any US citizens returning internationally) is a far better way of getting this done than a lockdown.
How do we make sure we quarantine people properly? Testing! Testing EVERYWHERE and ALL THE TIME!
A key point to remember: there is a difference between being infected and being infectious. We really care about whether or not you are infectious. Thankfully, tests for being infectious are much cheaper, incredibly fast, and far easier to roll out:
Thankfully, the FDA appears to understand this (finally) as it authorized the first COVID-19 rapid at-home self-test. We need tests to be everywhere. Want to keep schools open? Might be a bit difficult but there’s a way to do it:
Kids split into two groups: bus and car/bike/walk/etc.
Upon arriving at school, every kid receives a rapid test. They will remain with their bus (or the same group of car/bike/walk/etc. people) in the morning for ~30 minutes while test results come back. Anyone who tests positive is sent home and quarantines with family for 14 days. Anyone in that kid’s group is considered exposed and also quarantines. The rest of the school can continue as usual.
Rapid testing + Quaranting of infected + Border control is the starting point. And this isn’t new at all. Wrath of Gnon had a fascinating twitter thread on Ferrara, “the Italian city that beat the plague” where he describes how they did basically the above steps:
It is an excellent thread and I suggest reading it.
Working from home should continue to be encouraged. No non-essential work should be able to require people to come into the office for the next 3-6 months.
Effective stimulus for workers and businesses tied to conditions of no firings or furloughs. Criminal penalties if this condition is broken.
Masks work but mandating them may not lead to significant compliance. They absolutely should be used indoors. How to approach this, whether through leaving it up to businesses or indoor mandates, etc, is up to local conditions.
In addition to the core trifecta of rapid, widespread testing + quarantine of infected & exposed + border control, I suggest encouraging working from home, masks, and physical distancing. Local municipalities can decide whether or not they want to enforce mask mandates (either partial or full), etc. in their towns. Stores may also decide whether or not masks + physical distancing are required. To prevent super spreaders I believe bans on large events should continue, although large events is 50+. Places of worship may remain open. Limits on indoor capacity can also be decided locally, as different towns will have different situations with the virus. And of course, stimulus for staying home.
The goal is to avoid widespread lockdowns, to have as much open as possible, and to live our lives as normally as possible. No lockdowns, no school closures, no cancelled Thanksgiving, no closed shops all along main street. Will it be perfectly normal? No. Covid is real, and losing 2 million consumers (especially considering older consumers have more wealth) would be extremely bad for the economy. But, I believe this is a far better proposal than the Biden transition team calling for another lockdown or a mask mandate. Or closing bars at 10pm as if Covid only comes out at night like a vampire.
Ultimately, most COVID related policies are designed to placate the semi-wealthy urbanites and make them feel superior to the proles. They aren't designed to actually solve anything. There are policies that work. But those aren't supported by the Medical SuperState.
So, in the end, you pair a set of interventions that have proven efficacy with the maintenance of some element of normalcy (schools open, places of worship and gyms and restaurants and stores open perhaps at reduced capacity, holidays not cancelled, etc.). And we bring decision making on these issues down to as local a level as possible to respond to changing local conditions. Combine this with widespread testing, quarantine, and more serious border control, and you have a way to deal with the pandemic that will actually be complied with and should be fairly successful.