Tuesday, 17 November 2020

The Imagination in Times of Lockdown

The UK is currently in a 'second lockdown'. What this means in practice is: you can still go out freely and meet people outdoors (the rules on this are complex; nobody really follows them) but most of the shops are shut. You can go to a supermarket, or to a garden centre, or to a kitchen fitter. But you can't go to a bookshop. For some reason the local dog grooming salon down the road from my house is open and doing a roaring trade; the hair salons and barbers are all closed. (One aspect of British culture has not changed: dogs are still more important than people.) Parks and beaches are thronged with families enjoying the fresh air, even in the frigidity of November, because there's fuck all else to do. What has been achieved by the government can be summarised as: few of the purported public health benefits of 'locking down', but most of the economic costs. 

Richard Condon once said it was useless to try to understand the motives of the kind of people who seek and attain high public office. You might as well try to understand the motives of reptiles or space aliens. They want power. That is all you need to know. 

Walking to work through the centre of town each morning, I see people queuing at banks or at coffee shops, or simply wandering aimlessly about in the desolate ruin of what was once a society. This puts one in mind of running a post-apocalyptic game. Not Gamma World exactly; maybe more like something along the lines of Escape from New York but you can still go to Pret or Starbucks. 

My walk takes me through the main shopping street and then over a motorway bridge to my office - a deserted wasteland of empty cathedrals of commerce. Technically I'm supposed to be 'working from home' and can only go in with special permission; there are about a dozen of us, myself and some colleagues, who worked out back in October that nobody bothers to verify this and our keycards still get us in the building. We prefer to go in physically rather than 'live at work'. These are my band of brothers and sisters; these are the kind of person you would want beside you in the trenches. Now, one feels like running Cyberpunk 2020.

When the day is done, after hours sitting in the eerie peace that descends on an office building when there are about three occupants per floor, I know instead that what I really want is to run a game of Traveller, or Stars Without Number, or a Thousand Suns. To imagine what it was like to be free, to travel, to explore; how it was to live my life on my own terms, to take responsibility for my own conduct and my own goals, and to accept death and risk as the consequences of life truly lived. To imagine liberty. 


  1. "To imagine what it was like to be free, to travel, to explore; how it was to live my life on my own terms, to take responsibility for my own conduct and my own goals, and to accept death and risk as the consequences of life truly lived. To imagine liberty."

    Indeed. Though in the U. S. we have a different way of saying it: "Give me liberty, or give me death!"

    1. The American founders had a keen understanding that one could have freedom or security but not both. There is a balance to be struck between then, but where our societies used to err on the side of freedom; now they err on the side of security. That's the lesson of this year.

    2. of this millenia, rather. Patriot act looms in the pre-covid era, though that breach of freedom now seems trite.

    3. Yes, it's funny, I was chatting to a colleague earlier about a line of cases in which English courts declared various measures to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act because they were too restrictive on the liberty of terrorist suspects - stuff like curfews and having to stay at home for most of the day. That was only about 15 years ago.

  2. Beautifully put. Whatever one's personal politics, it's not worth a hill of beans without freedom. IMHO naturally.

    It's low key alarming playing something like Esoteric Enterprises, ie, set in the modern world. Why? Because it feels anachronistic and like wish fulfilment.

    SWN has come out and I'll be reprising my Leonard Rossiter based security technician. A man who secretly yearns to be a cowboy and to ride the open plain (too many restricted brain loopers).

    Looking to run cyberpunk also... but of a mashup with Roadside Picnic.

    I'm waffling, passing time set at a deserted train station, post another ghostly furlough walk. It's not a plug, but should you fancy, check out my Lockdown blog... it's pretty much based around my experience of trying to keep a Mancunian music venue from closing down amidst what I perceive, regardless of one's take on the virus, as an attack on life (no music, no socialising, no dancing, no sex, no community).

    Best wishes and maintain coherence.

    Blog link: https://thepeerhat.blogspot.com/?m=1

    1. Yes, exactly: an attack on life. In a quixotic atttempt to abolish death, everything that makes life worth living is to be sacrificed. Music, socialising, dancing, sex and community will come back, but something has been forever altered: when we are eventually allowed to do those things, it will be because the state lets us. That so few people seem to find that prospect horrifying is a profound shock.

      My own position on this virus is coloured by the fact that my father died of the consequences of catching the 'flu. If somebody had said to me back then that he could be saved if people stopped socialising, meeting up with family, going to church, holding community organisations, playing spots, engaging in cultural activities, and went about wearing masks for an indefinite period - possibly years - in order to stop the spread of the flu virus, I would have found the prospect utterly absurd. Yet this is where we are now.

    2. We were always allowed to do those things because the state lets us. Maybe we come away with a keener awareness of how alienable those right always were.

    3. Perhaps yes. Carl Schmitt's critique of liberal democracy turns out to have been entirely correct: when the chips are down, the mirage of liberal rights disappears. Let's hope his final conclusions weren't as correct.

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  3. My goodness. What a bunch of whiney, self-important pap.

    1. You don't deserve a thoughtful response to that comment, Ivan. It's the kneejerk reaction of somebody who lives in a country in which opinions about the pandemic are palpably and hopelessly partisan and politicised.

      But I'll give you one anyway. In a few years' time, when we have some perspective, people will look back on the colossal cost of our collective reactions to this pandemic and conclude that the cure was far, far worse than the disease. The cancelled non-covid medical treatments, the huge damage done to childrens' education, the fractured communities, the economic devastation and the damage that will do to public health in general, the suicides, the sheer opportunity cost (the UK government has spent around *three times the entire annual National Health Service budget* on paying people not to work - think of how many lives *that* money could have saved if it had been otherwise spent).

      But setting that to one side, it's clear to anybody who has been dispassionately observing our reactions to all of this that much of it depends on personality. Some people are communitarians who prioritise the 'greater good' and believe that making sacrifices is worthwhile in the interests of safety and security. Others are individualists who prize risk-taking and freedom. A society needs both kinds of person - one comprising only the former would be the worst form of totalitarianism; one comprising only the latter would be the worst form of anarchy. Think twice before you dismiss the concerns of the individualists as 'whiney and self-important'.

    2. No, you've misunderstood. I'm very sympathetic to the position that the costs of lockdown outweigh the benefits. I think a lot of the "one death is too many" rhetoric is incredibly misguided and misses the very real suffering that severe limitations on social interactions cause. E.g., I think shutting down schools for tens of millions of children *who virtually never get the disease in the first place* is a terrible decision. I cannot accept telling a five year old that he has to spend 20% of his entire life not seeing his friends because there's a tiny, tiny chance that letting him live his life might cause an 80 year old to die.

      But your original post isn't a reasonable discussion of any of that. Instead, it's just self-congratulatory emo nonsense. You're not living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, or anything like it ("desolate ruin of what was once a society" -- for pity's sake). The fact that you prefer to come into the office is not impressive or praiseworthy, and it says absolutely nothing about your self-reliant heroism, or anyone else's. The entire piece reads as patting yourself on the back in the most cringeworthy way. Same goes for the trick of accusing people on the other side of bad faith pursuit of power.

      You're also making a bunch of goofily inaccurate historical claims. Societies throughout history have taken *extreme* measures to combat plagues. You're complaining about having to wear a mask? Is that worse than a brigade of soldiers with orders to execute you if you leave your village?

      So talk to me all you want about how lockdown is a bad idea. Spare me this garbage.

    3. Why do you read my blog, given that the only comments you ever leave are such condescending, self-righteous bilge? I bent over backwards to give a reasonable response to your last comment, expecting I might get at least a modicum of courtesy in return, but I'm not doing that any more. Please fuck off and never comment on my blog ever again.

    4. Just FYI, I do really enjoy 95% of your posts. I just unleash self righteous bilge every once in a while. Was in a bad mood yesterday. Sorry.

    5. I meant every word of this post, and feel all of this keenly. Being told it is self-important pap and emo nonsense was really not appreciated. But an apology is an apology and I accept that - water under the bridge.

    6. Understood. Thanks. Some day I'll figure out a way to disagree on tone without being insulting. I guess leaving out the insults would be a good first step.

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. In any case, Ivan, what I think we can agree on is that a healthy society prioritises the needs of its young over its old. School closures are unforgivable. There is no justification for it other than fear, and completely unwarranted fear to boot.

    9. I don't follow Kent's comment, but it seems you might have mistaken him for me? In any event, yes. I agree about school closures.

    10. No, I was just ignoring him!

  4. Politicians use general lockdowns (and fearmongering, and moralising to the general public) to cover up their own ineptitude. Here we're in our second lockdown (bookshops open but dog grooming salons closed), and it has become clear they've done nothing serious to prevent this. Test & trace is a massive failure, nothing was done to prepare for extra care capacity for a second wave everyone has been expecting since even before the first ended. And now we get those smug talking heads on tv every day lecturing us on how we're all naughty children "not following THE RULES".

    1. What's interesting is how this same story has played out more or less everywhere. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I just think that the idea that governments could control the spread of a virus like this was in the first place a completely hubristic fantasy. Since almost none of them have really been able to do so (except through sheer dumb luck), they're all reaching for the same excuses: it's all YOUR fault - go to your room! You're GROUNDED!

    2. > I just think that the idea that governments could control the spread of a virus like this was in the first place a completely hubristic fantasy.

      Absolutely agreed.

    3. And in pulling out all stops they're actually undermining their own effort. By now we know that for healthy young people the virus is almost never fatal and usually no worse than a regular flu. But we keep being told that every time you go outside shopping or see someone face to face you risk death. It just doesn't work. Half the student population never follows any of the corona rules (or so research tells and living in a neighborhood with a lot of students it does seem to true). Now the bars are closed they just meet in their rooms. And yet the deaths among young people haven't skyrocketed. The gap between the official apocalyptic warnings and the lived reality is so big, people are increasingly ignoring any advice & instructions, even those that do make sense.

    4. Yes, and all it does is reveal the law to be an ass. Once that Rubicon has been crossed we're in real trouble.

  5. I went home to Seattle on vacation recently and I'll never forget a walk I took at about 4:30 in the afternoon through Volunteer Park in Capitol Hill, just a few miles from the 6 block zone which had been dried of its lifeblood so recently when a little stillborn state metastasized there.

    Couples were everywhere walking, holding hands, sitting on the low walls or wood benches. School was happening outdoors so little children were sitting in circles everywhere with their art books around the fountains or on beach towels in the grass. Afterschool activities were starting so teenage counselors were shepherding kids in little sports games, little clouds of people with a central figure twice the height of the rest. People were streaming by on bikes, teenagers in white smocks practicing fencing among the bushes beneath a mossy old brick tower, old ladies walking in groups along the little trails. Picnics. Fall leaves everywhere, the sun low in the sky over the reservoir. In my whole life I've never seen so many good people out and about in a public park. It was the most idyllic thing in the world. I'm grateful for that memory.

    It was like seeing life coming back into the world after a plague, a war or a winter. The shops and bars were all open and everywhere I went people were mixing indoors or outside basking in the cool wind.

    I'm not making any kind of point. Reading about your walk just makes me feel like remarking on my own.

    1. I felt the same way back in summer for a brief period when things were opening up here. I've no doubt that once the magic spell of the vaccine has come along we'll get it again. I look forward to that. I'm not a great TV watcher but recently I've been watching Anthony Bourdain's Part's Unknown, which I'd not seen before. God, how I miss just going to a pub or a restaurant or that feeling of arriving in a foreign country for the first time.

  6. My view on the virus is generally covered by the fact that I live in one of the worst hotspots in the country. The hospital down the road hauled out vans to keep the extra dead bodies in because the mourges were overflowing.

    To argue that going out and ignoring quarintine somehow "takes personal responsibility" shows an alarming lack of understanding of how congaign and communal responsibility work. When you stay in, it's not because you're keeping yourself safe: it's because it keeps others safe, and stops the dead from overflowing.

    1. Yes, I'm familiar with that argument, believe it or not. It's not that I don't understand it. It's that I don't agree with it. Human beings do not have a general obligation to keep others safe. We have the obligation not to deliberately or recklessly infect others, but we are social animals and infectious disease is part of our nature. We have always previously accepted that and taken solace when disease spreads in our families, our communities, our art and our religions. We have been sensible and cautious at times of epidemic, but we have never before taken the absurd position that we must deny our sociality entirely in order to prevent death.

      To be alive is to put oneself and others at risk. Every time you get behind the wheel of a car you could kill somebody. You do it anyway.

    2. Respectfully, I must strongly disagree.

      Yes, we put ourselves and others at risk when we drive cars, but we reduce that risk when we follow the traffic rules and speed limits, and don't drive drunk.

      Rep. Bill Janklow of South Dakota blew through a stop sign at 70 miles per hour and killed a motorcyclist on Aug. 16, 2003. He had a reputation as a politician in various state offices of advocating a certain strain of Republican laissez-faire capitalism. He was a politician who believed in a sort of anarchy, even though he was in the government and a lawmaker. In his personal life, he believed laws didn't apply to him. 16 times, during a stint as governor, he was stopped by State Troopers for traffic violations, but let go without tickets due to "fear of retribution". He used his authority as governor to bypass the statutory process and pardon his son-in-law of 3 drunk driving and drug possession convictions.


      The existence of laws isn't wrong.

      Stakeholders, no matter how poor or powerless, should be able to have input into the writing of the laws that effect them. Some laws, of course, are poorly written. Often people with political and economic power pervert or bypass the law. The arc of history is long, but bends toward justice IF we never let up our fight for it.

      That said, fighting for the right to walk around maskless and possibly breathing in and out COVID-19 is not a good fight to take up.

      COVID obeys only the laws of nature and science, and cares neither about our human freedom nor advancing the authority of the human State.

      The laws of nature and science say that virus transmission is cut by wearing masks, and avoiding large gatherings. Minnesota, USA, my home, was quarantining pretty well at first, and we saw a drop in transmission rates. Czech Republic, my spiritual home, did pretty well after lockdown, too. But now a new wave is rolling in with certain political rallies where masks are rare, protests across the political spectrum, in-person school restarting, and people's general fatigue with COVID restrictions. Risking (I'm estimating here)by rolling d4 + 2 in a real-life save vs. insidious virus for inessential indulgences like getting one's eyelashes tinted, getting a tattoo, getting salsa-sweat on your dance partners packed into Conga Latin Bistro in "Nordeast" Minneapolis (I saw video evidence), or getting your dog 'do done is something we should have patience to forgo until the vaccine is widely enough in use.

      Our ancestors - your ancestors - lived through the Blitz and similar crises. They observed curfews and black-out restrictions at night and made it more difficult for the Krauts to bomb them, even though it was a pain in the arse to follow the restrictions.

      I hope in your area, and everywhere, laws informed by science can reach a reasonable compromise that balances economic and social needs with infection non-transmission.

      Instead of breathing on everyone in indoor pubs and Gatecrasher-size disco clubs, let the pubs set up outdoors on the sidewalks and make beer gardens. Advocate buying food from the pubs and restaurants for take-away and delivery. Maybe your friendly local Orc's Nest and favorite bookstore has to go entirely online and mail-order. Devo put it tongue-in-cheek, but it applies straight in our current situation: Duty now for the future. Delayed gratification. Self-control by individuals for the greater good of others (and eventually, self).

      I hate wearing pants, but I will wear them when outdoors. Nobody wants to catch sight of that in the streets.

      In any case, thank you for providing this forum.

    3. "Infectious disease is part of nature" is a sentiment that feels weirdly social darwin-y to me. "People die and that's not my problem," this sort of diffusion of the personal responsibility people hold by throwing up your hands and going "Welp! That's just nature!" instead of treating people as responsible for the direct consequences of their actions.

      Polio was part of nature, and we managed to eliminate that. Arguing that "people die, its fine" really feels wild when, again, trucks full of dead people.

      I really wish I was exaggerating that. I really wish that wasn't something I had to see whenever I went for a (socially distanced and masked) walk.

      This is not normal times. This is a plague.

      The reason that we're still in lockdown now is because people couldn't follow basic medical protocol earlier. If you watch the graphs of infection, the points where it falls lines up perfectly with where lockdowns are instituted, and where it rises lines up perfectly with where they're lifted. Had people actually managed to be sensible and just spend two months following the guidelines laid out by the World Health Organization, this whole situation would either have been over or be much less worse then it is now. More then a million people are dead, because people are somehow unable to grok the idea that a smidgen of their personal comfort is worth less then the literal lives of others.

    4. Anon, your argument is bizarrely circular, like the pro-lockdown case always is. Given that lockdowns work, that face masks work, and that social distancing works, then if only people had followed those rules, we'd be out of this. It should be evident to anybody why that argument isn't persuasive.

      I don't know where you get your data from but everybody accepts now that the rate of infection was already falling in March in the UK before the first, strict lockdown came into force. Even the Chief Medical Officer has admitted this, before a Parliamentary Committtee. Restrictions were eased in May and June and infections were on the floor for months before rising suddenly in September and October. In other words, it is exactly what you would expect if you were looking at a seasonal virus spreading through a population - irrespective of whether they sat at home watching Netflix or went out as normal. I know that is very hard to accept for somebody who is emotionally invested in all of this, but in a few years' time everybody will have realised this.

    5. Also, and this goes for both of you guys above, it's no good complaining about people not being able to follow the rules. If people are incapable of following a rule, the problem is not the people - the problem is the rule. Anybody could have foreseen back in March that compliance with all of these requirements would not last longer than at most a few months. It completely misunderstands human nature to expect otherwise. This crap was never a long-term solution.

    6. noisms - I don't think most people are asking anyone to just take the efficacy of lockdowns, face masks, and social distancing as a given. These things are demonstrated to reduce the spread of viral infections by minimizing the transfer of virus-containing droplets from someone infected with the virus to someone who is not. Lockdowns reduce the frequency of opportunities for this transfer to occur, facemasks reduce the amount of droplets that can potentially be transferred from infected individuals (and reduce the amount of droplets that may be inhaled by not infected individuals), and social distancing reduces the amount of droplets that individuals may come into contact with (see inverse-square law).

      These are the arguments for why lockdowns, face masks, and social distancing is effective. The pro-lockdown argument that lockdowns were insufficiently followed and this is why more lockdowns are required now isn't circular in nature.

    7. This is precisely what I'm talking about. You do know, don't you, that in normal, sane societies, medical interventions are only usually made on the basis that randomised control trials suggest that there is a benefit that outweighs any harm, and that there is a causal relationship between the intervention and that benefit. They're not based on "well, we reckon that it's plausible that this works because of x, y and z reason based on modelling".

      The mask-wearing thing is a particularly egregious example of how basic science has been thrown out of the window. RCTs generally show no efficacy from mask-wearing or that it actually makes things worse. (A huge real-world RCT on their efficacy was in fact just published today in Denmark, showing...no efficacy from mask wearing.) But we do it because, "well, we reckon it must work". And then, after mask wearing has been made mandatory and it appears to have had no effect on viral transmission (mask-wearing in shops was made mandatory in Britain in July and there is no correlation whatsoever with cases going either up or down as a consequence - it certainly hasn't had any effect on the 'second wave'), we say: "well, given that masks surely work, the increased spread of the virus means we clearly need more mandatory mask wearing!"

      This is, in a word, stupid.

      The same reasoning applies with social distancing and lockdowns. "Given that we think it's plausible that these work, and infections are going up, what we need is more social distancing and lockdowns."

    8. That Danish study was about what protection masks give one from being infected and not whether they protect others, which is an importan caveat to keep in mind. "“The findings, however, should not be used to conclude that a recommendation for everyone to wear masks in the community would not be effective in reducing SARS-CoV-2 infections, because the trial did not test the role of masks in source control (transmission from an infected person to others) of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” it adds."


    9. Did you really investigate that Danish study, or did you just see a headline saying that there was a new study that disputed mask effectiveness?

      I didn't read the whole thing, but I did just now at least read the abstract, which describes that the study indicates that mask wearing did not decrease Covid spread by more than 50% among those wearing masks in an environment where mask use was not common. So, no, this study does not show that masks are not effective, it shows that maybe they don't protect the users as well as might be hoped, but certainly doesn't dispute that they reduce the spread if worn by already infected people (i.e. source control).

      I certainly agree that a RCT analyzing whether masks are an effective way to prevent spread from those who are infected (symptomatic or asymptomatic) is needed, but it doesn't make much sense to me that when experts in a field can issue a plausible mechanistic relationship between mask wearing and decreasing spread that policymakers should need to wait for this before mandating a low-cost, non-pharmaceutical intervention. If an RCT indicates that mask wearing is not at all effective on a community level, I would support dropping mandatory mask wearing.

    10. Incidentally, sorry if my tone is a little too heated, never good to get mean in an argument with a stranger on the internet.

    11. No, you've been very polite - much politer than I have!

      The gist of the Danish study is that in essence it shows nothing. It's just noise. A good summary of the RCT evidence up to July 2020 on mask-wearing can be found here: https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/masking-lack-of-evidence-with-politics/ Basically, it can all be summarised as: we know almost nothing.

      The killer RCT is one done in Vietnam amongst healthcare workers and published in 2015, which found that having them wear proper medical masks all the time was better than 'standard practice', but having them wear cloth masks all the time was a lot worse than 'standard practice'. Now, this was just among healthcare workers in hospitals, but it appears from the study that wearing cloth masks all the time definitely is not a good way to prevent becoming infected. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4420971/) Now, if our governments were mandating we all go around in medical masks 24/7 that would be one thing. But that's not what is being mandated, and naturally they could not mandate that for a whole host of obvious reasons. More importantly even than that: if they did mandate it, people would not and *could not* comply. Have you been to a British supermarket and watched people's mask-wearing habits?

      To summarise: we are being forced to cover our noses and mouths, which most people do ineffectively with cloth masks. Cloth masks are probably worse for you than wearing nothing. If our governments were serious they might force us to wear medical masks all the time, but that would be prohibitively expensive and would not be complied with. In other words - this is not policy 'following the science', it is wishful thinking.

      The problem with RCTs that go the other way round (i.e. testing whether they stop an infectious person infecting others) is, how would you even design such a study and get your sample?

      I profoundly disagree with the idea that one should just trust "plausible mechanistic relationships". The reason why RCTs are necessary is that "plausible mechanistic relationships" are not how things work in the real world where there are literally potentially millions of variables which are omitted by the people who are modelling those relationships. (The same is true of social distancing and lockdowns. Social distancing is predicated on measuring viral spread in labs. 'Omitted variable bias' doesn't even cover how inadequate that is in testing real-world effectiveness.) Also, it isn't all experts by *any* means - the idea that there is anything like scientific consensus on mask-wearing simply is not correct.

      I think the mask-wearing phenomenon comes from a perfectly understandable and genuinely laudable desire to feel as though one is helping. We want to feel like we are 'doing our bit', and putting a mask on has that feeling. I'm not one to dismiss that as 'virtue signalling' - it is an entirely compassionate impulse: "If I wear a mask, maybe it will protect others." But it is not founded in science.

    12. The current scientific consensus is that masks help, every literature review has shown a positive effect. Every real world example of mask mandates shows a reduction in transmission. The CDC, WHO and all the medical research institutes in the world recommend them. For a real world example this just came out. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6947e2.htm

    13. The WHO recommends them because they were lobbied to do so by European governments, who wanted to introduce mandates in summer to 'restore confidence' for consumers.

      The study you cite is an observational one, not a RCT, and which nicely summarises the problem with observational studies at the end: "The ecologic design of this study and limited information on community mask-wearing behaviors and county implementation and enforcement provisions of mask mandates limit the ability to determine the extent to which the countywide mask mandates accounted for the observed declines in COVID-19 incidence in mandated counties."

      There are always many, many, many other variables other than 'mask mandate/no mask mandate', I'm afraid.

      You empirical observation that every real world example of mask mandates shows a reduction in transmission also ignores the experience of more or less every country in Europe. If anything, mandatory mask-wearing is correlated (important word - I'm not saying it's causitive) with increased viral spread across the continent. Cases were plummeting in England until July, when mandatory mask wearing came into effect. Then they started creeping upwards and, eventually, explosively so. This is the same in Spain, France, Italy, etc.

      The wider point here is that science is not about observation but about experiment, which is why RCTs are the gold standard.

    14. I mean, it could just be the case that people in counties of Kansas who are already uber anxious and cautious about the virus (and do many other more effective things to stop the spread) demand their local government put into effect mask mandates. It's the qualities of the population which stop the spread, and mask mandates are an epiphenomenon. Who knows?

    15. We're stuck with observational studies because we can't in good conscience do an RCT with Covid-19.

    16. Well, a few RCTs have been done.

      Observational studies just aren't worth the paper they're written on most of the time. They just reveal the biases of the researchers, and given the politicisation of the issue, especially in the US (Dem=mask, Rep=no mask), that's a recipe for disaster.

      Making it a criminal offence not to wear a mask is in itself one of the biggest infringements of civil liberties in peacetime in liberal democracies, not to mention one of the biggest-scale medical interventions ever. It should only have been done on the most solid evidential grounds, but it simply has not. We have no idea how masks affect community transmission of this disease but we also have no idea how they contribute to the growth of other respiratory infections, the effects on children and child development, etc. The speed with which it all happened is something which, frankly, I find completely chilling.

    17. In the US there is no actual criminal offense attached to not wearing a mask. Scientists in the US are overwhelmingly liberal, observational studies are widely used in epidemiology.
      My own branch of biology is dominated by observational studies, so the idea that inferences are made without a tightly controlled RCT doesn't bother me much.
      The issue of civil liberties being impinged is something that comes down to individual ideology. I'm more horrified by the prevalence of CCTV or the travesty of my country's Patriot Act.

    18. Here it's a civil offence punishable by a fine but obviously then there are criminal consequences for not paying.

      The problem of scientists being overwhelmingly liberal is precisely the issue. If Republicans are against mask-wearing do you honestly think that doesn't affect how scientists read the observational data?

      I do take your point about observational studies being used routinely in some fields but the stakes are nothing like as high.

  7. Normal life is never coming back and I don't think we've quite felt the sheer extent of how monstrous and dehumanizing this 'new normal' will be. Its drain on the human spirit has only just begun. For some of us, limited escapism is just about all we have left. Cherish those tabletop games you have, folks, even THAT might not last at this rate.

    1. Bob, don't get too down about it. There has been unwarranted hysteria about the virus but don't fall into the opposing trap of unwarranted hysteria about society. Human nature has not changed; the 'new normal' is awful but it is not sustainable. It will end. Some things will have been irrevocably lost, but we will have the 'old normal' or something like it again.

    2. I agree. I am confident that in the not-too-distant future people will look back at all of this and shake their heads in disbelief. Shelves of books will be written trying to explain "The Global Panic" (or whatever it will come to be called).

    3. It will also be really, really hard to find anybody who can remember having been in favour of lockdowns.

  8. Certainly feels like living in a dystopia, but a very humdrum, low-budget one; not really horrifying, mostly just ugly and stupid. Add to that society's paranoid fantasies spilling out into the open, carefully maintained masks slipping, and there is something about the year that's very Philip K. Dick. Peculiar.

  9. Noisms, I am interested by your comment about individualists and communitarians, but to answer your point about 'hubristic fantasy' there are a number of places that have controlled this outbreak, some more authoritarian than others. I live in Hong Kong, where, with luck we will maintain an infection rate of less than 10 per day. China has very very few reported cases, Taiwan has had none for months. Now obviously there is a range here of authoritarianism in these places, but the common factor is a strong emphasis on communitarian prevention efforts. I'm not saying we will or won't regret the lockdowns or that community spread hasn't reached a point where general transmission is inevitable. I just want to say that with certain types of government response, community behavior and border control, the pandemic can be reduced even in some of the most densely populated cities on earth.

    In order to maintain that, when cases got over 100 a day (in a city of 7 million) people stopped going out, and we have been wearing masks every moment we leave the house since Feb. The key was early and universal community response, track and trace, along with border testing and quarantines.

    The issue in the U.S. and Europe now though is (100,000 > 100), and people are trying to close the barn door after all the cows have gone. I do wish I could go back to my home country again, or travel anywhere really and I feel terrible for all the people who have lost jobs due to the lockdowns (friends here included).

    1. It is such a complicated question, because I don't believe for a second that it is just that the bureaucracy in Hong Kong is fantastically efficient. Japan has also been largely spared much of the problems that we have had, and if there is one thing I know about Japanese bureaucracy, it is that it is NOT fantastically efficient.

      Communitarian prevention measures may play a role but I think (I am speaking about Japan here, because I lived there for so long) it has much more to do with the fact that East Asians tend to take more care about personal hygiene in general, have better diets, have far less diabetes, have far less morbid obesity. Very old people tend to live with their families, and if they do live in care homes, those care homes tend not to be unsanitary. In other words, there are big cultural factors at work.

      Border testing was also undoubtedly relevant. Throughout February and March our government were just basically pleading people to self-isolate if they happened to have been to Wuhan.

      But you know what? I think ultimately the reason may be luck. The virus apparently orginated in China, which, if you like, is the East Asian virome. People in East Asia may simply have much greater prior immunity from related coronavirus strains which circulate more on that continent.

  10. Reading the news from the rest of the world over here in Korea is like something out of The Prince of 100,000 Leaves or something, everything seems like a thin skin over a pit of barking insanity.

    Things are pretty much normal here with a few mild restrictions, the few week partial shutdown we had in the spring was all based on voluntary recommendations and life mostly got back to normal by the middle of March.

    Meanwhile I'm hearing about bizarre hare-brained combinations of strictness and insane laxity without any real rhyme or reason with bizarre oscillations between lockdowns and doing fuck-all, unhinged conspiracy theories that people WANT all of this to happen, people dying while denying that they have the virus with their last breath https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/u-s-nurse-says-dying-covid-19-patients-spent-last-minutes-insisting-virus-isn-t-real-1.5191235 , and on and on and on and on.

    The strangest part for me is that people seem to think there's some direct trade off between corona deaths and economic performance. As if you could have the economy keep on chugging along normally if you tried to grin and bear a pandemic. Just act early, have everyone mask up and set up tracing and you don't NEED all of these restrictions OR mass deaths.

    1. I half-dealt with this in the above comment but I think we miss a lot of unseen differences between places like Korea and places like Britain.

      I am not a conspiracy theorist but I can absolutely understand why those theories spread. We have widespread censorship of sceptical sources of any kind, which *always* fosters the spread of conspiracy thinking, combined with law makers who are clearly inept and clearly panicking and, as a consequence, creating rules that make no sense. When this happens, there is a natural tendency for people to see sinister forces at work. It isn't sinister forces - it is incompetence combined with unrealistic expectations about what governments can do - but I get why conspiracy theorists think the way they do.

    2. Well for conspiracies, having governments blatantly lie about the utility of masks back in the spring in order to prevent people from doing a run on masks like they did with TP. But these days we're getting batshit conspiracies about EVERYTHING so whatever's causing them isn't all that corona-specific.

      So many governments did a horrible job of giving people a clear idea of what was going on in the start. Part of it is going after the conspiracy loons in stupid ways that backfired but a FAR bigger problem was just about every government blowing smoke up people's asses in the early days instead of giving them a clear idea of how bad it was going to get.

      If you remember the message in the early days it was all "panic is worse than the virus" and "don't forget to wash you hands!" which was just horrible. I mean Macron was urging people to go to opera as late as March 10th which is just utterly insane plus talks about restrictions only lasting a very short time bred all the worst kinds of expectations.

      So, at least in the early days, the problem wasn't the government cracking down on skeptics but the governments themselves being far far far too skeptical about the virus.

      This lead the virus to spread to high levels and then over-reactions in the other direction after the virus went out of control. And then through the summer and the fall we get the same crazy zig-zagging to over-reactions in BOTH directions. I can see why people are throwing up their hands now and saying "screw it!"

      Now on the human rights angle Korea has tracked the GPS of infected people and has enforced the quarantines of exposed people (Korean privacy violations, while serious, often get mixed up with the vastly more intrusive Chinese system which is very different) but restrictions on the general population have always been very very very light compared to just about anywhere.

      Why was that possible?

      Because the government was realistic and honest back in February and told people exactly how bad it was and exactly what was going on and then recommended (but didn't mandate) that people stay home. Because the government was open and honest about what was going on people got really scared and stayed home without any real enforcement of anything (with very very few exceptions any business that wanted to stayed open etc. etc.). Because of that all of the lock downs and all of the rest never became necessary.

      Even with with the privacy violations the government was always very transparent about exactly what was being done to who and how and why with a very free flow of information to people (which tended to annoy them as their phones rang off the hook with text messages).

      To me the whole thing looks a lot like Chernobyl in which so many governments tried to ignore that there was any problem for far too long and then that lead to so many unnecessary deaths and much harsher measures later on.

      In Chernobyl terms you seem to be complaining more about all the dogs being shot and people forced out of their homes in the later episodes while I think the far bigger problem is all of the "3.6 roentgen, not great, not terrible" most of the world was getting fed back in the early weeks.

    3. There is an element of truth in this picture, but I think you've had a very distorted view of how things were in Europe at the time, being on the other end of the Eurasian continent.

      There was an initial period of, not scepticism, but rather - "here we go again". There was a general perception this would be another SARS/MERS/Avian flu/Swine flu scare that would come to nothing in Europe even if it might affect Asia. I don't think it's fair to blame politicians for that now, with the benefit of hindsight.

      However, that very rapidly changed to: "Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown" despite the fact that lockdowns have never before been tried in human history and despite the fact that the only evidence for them "working" appeared to be China - an authoritarian regime with state-owned media from which "news" and data ought never to be trusted. There was complete panic - hysteria, in fact, beginning in the media, spreading to the population, and then spreading to government. I remember it distinctly because I was watching it unfold, appalled. I was looking at the data coming out of Taiwan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, France, New York, etc., and thinking "Ok, so this is a disease which has an average age of death of about 81 or 82, and almost everybody who dies is already really ill, so...why are we talking about closing schools and shops and not just paying old people to stay at home and take lots of vitamin D?" But there was sheer, unbridled terror sweeping through society, and our politicians, who ought to have kept cool heads, simply caved in to it.

      We are now caught in a vicious trap. It is clear to anybody who looks dispassionately at the data that this is not the virus it was cracked up to be. The US CDC reckons it has an infection fatality rate of about 0.2%; the WHO reckons it's about 0.13%. It is somewhat worse than flu, but not much worse, and it's actually less dangerous for young people and children than flu is. Of course, there is a flu vaccine and no vaccine for this virus, but still - it simply isn't a biblical style plague. Most people now intuit this even if they don't look at the data - which is why they basically ignore social distancing and governments are resorting to increasingly authoritarian suppression as a consequence. So, tomorrow, we could go back to almost normal - but governments have painted themselves into a corner because if they admit that, it means admitting to having made possibly the most catastrophic peace-time mistake in centuries. They can't retreat now from the message that all of this is necessary, because if they do they will look like fools. And so we must press on until finally the magic spell of a vaccine gets them off the hook.

      So, yes, there was a very brief period of downplaying the problem, but it was very brief - and, I will add, again in defence of politicians, it was also the scientific advice. I remember distinctly our Chief Medical Officer going on national radio to tell people the virus was nothing to worry about when the first case was discovered here. He and the Chief Scientific Officer also went on TV at the start of March and specifically advocated for a 'herd immunity' strategy. Why would our PM not follow their advice? (These are the same people, by the way, who now tell us that lockdowns are vital and we must all wear masks, blah blah blah - in other words, the shit rises to the top.)

    4. Sorry for taking five days to get back to you on this. Well, one good thing about you screening all of these comments besides keeping the spammers out is that you'll at least get to see that this comment exists despite it being on an old thread.

      You're right that having the benefit of hindsight makes it hard to judge how good decisions were on the ground at the time. COVID-19 is a new virus so it was impossible for ANYONE to make up a plan of action with so many unknowns.

      What mostly seemed to have happened in that Korea (am not really qualified to talk about Japan) reached for the MERS playbook. The previous administration fucked up the MERS response in 2015 pretty badly so the government was motivated to stay on the ball and started taking a lot of action back in January to get ready (developing and stockpiling test kits etc.). Now MERS and COVID-19 are REALLY different in many ways but overall it seems to have worked out OK. So Korea had a big advantage at the start due to sheer dumb luck.

      Meanwhile the Anglo-American strategy (which also had a lot of influence in other places) seemed to be based on reaching for the Swine Flu playbook. As you point out this was fully supported by the scientific community at the time. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that this was a really bad idea.

      It's hard to blame them for making that determination at the very start when there wasn't much information to go on, but VERY early on evidence that that was a dumb way of responding to the virus started coming out and a lot of places just stayed the course on that strategy until it was way too late to stop explosive growth (I remember well into the Italian outbreak other European countries not doing anything whatsoever when even very mild actions would've stood a good chance at staving off a lockdown) and then panicked and did a complete 180 towards lock downs.That panicked 180 didn't take place until well into March which was way too late and made it impossible to get the virus under control with more mild Korean-style means.

      My understanding is that Japan also had very mild measures in place but they were put in place very early. Putting mild measures in place in February or even January does one HELL of a lot more good than lock downs in the middle of March both in terms of death and economic damage.

      I agree with you that lockdowns are often a bad idea, but it depends on the circumstance. To break things down:

      A. If the medical system is about to collapse due to the sheer influx of patients then breaking out the sledgehammer seems necessary just to give the medical system some breathing room.

      B. If total, complete, and permanent eradication of the virus seems possible it's worth a shot to get the pain over with. This seems to have worked out well for Vietnam and a few other places.

      C. If you have a Korean-style track and trace system ready to roll out and just need to get cases down to a level at which tracing is possible then it seems to make sense since the Korean-style system allows the government to play wack-a-mole with the virus and keep a lid on it with really minimal restrictions. This is what I THOUGHT was the game plan in Europe back in March, but I was wrong, which makes Sweden seem a lot smarter comparatively in retrospect.

      D. However if none of A, B, or C apply then lockdowns are idiotic. As you point out a lot of the lockdowns appear to have been motivated by panic more than anything and there was no exit strategy. What we seem to have had was strict lockdowns, then lockdowns lifted and people going nuts and then the virus spreading everywhere again and then new lockdowns. It's the equivalent of weight management via alternating binge eating and anorexia and it's just stupid and shortsighted.

    5. However, if a lot of western countries hadn't stuck their heads in the sand for so long and had given people better information and advice then there wouldn't have been so much panic and demand for lockdowns. The fact that so many people were crying out for lockdowns was a strong sign that people had fucked up hardcore in terms of response and messaging in an of itself.

      I'm also going to have to disagree strongly with some of your ideas. According to the Korean government 31,353 people have been infected and 510 have died. That gives a 1.6% death rate. OF COURSE that misses asymptomatic people who were never tested etc. so the real death rate must be lower than 1.6%. But did the Korean government miss 90% of all infected people? I don't buy that for a second and, frankly, I trust the Korean government a million times more when it comes to COVID-19 then I trust the CDC or the WHO.

      Also, the death rate would rise a whole lot if the medical system is strained to the point that people aren't getting proper medical care. And whatever the death rate is the HOSPITALIZATION rate is high enough that to get anywhere to even the remote ballpark of herd immunity over a reasonable span of time you'd overwhelm the medical system and that would spike the death rate. On top of increased deaths by keeping doctors busy and doing less preventative care or treating other illnesses if corona is slamming the hospitals.

      You don't have to put in very restrictive measures at all to keep a lid on the virus. While wearing a mask all the freaking time is annoying you can do nearly anything you want these days in Korea and we've kept a lid on it.

      I own a cram school here in Korea (being an American ex-pat helps with some things) and if the Korean government had taken a more relaxed approach to things my students' parents would've panicked and pulled their kids out of school which would've bankrupted me just the same as a long lockdown would have. I'm really happy to not be bankrupt so I'm not going to look very favorably on policies on either side that would've driven me to bankruptcy. This year has been hard enough without that.

      I think a general plan of:
      A. Get a test and trace system in place.
      B. Figure out what's the capacity of your test and trace system.
      C. Put in whatever measures you need to keep new cases within that capacity.
      D. Keep those measures as mild and non-intrusive as possible.

      Is a pretty damn good middle path between "herd immunity" and "lock down" gives you low death rates AND little economic damage. Of course complete eradication is better but sometimes that isn't possible and just sticking things out and playing wack-a-mole with the virus until you get a vaccine seems reasonable.

  11. Have you heard of the Great Barrington Declaration? (Well, sadly not that ‘great’ because here in the USA at least, the media has pretty much universally decided to ignore it) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Barrington_Declaration

    1. Yes, I have, and the reaction tells you a lot of what you need to know about the state our societies have come to. Instead of debate about the advisability of alternatives, instead we get character assassination and, frankly, quasi-religious attempts to simply close debate down.

    2. I live in the USA, and this comment thread is only the second time that I've seen the Great Barrington Declaration mentioned in print.

      Thanks for keeping a terrific RPG blog, noisms, and my apologies for my comment thread "necromancy."

  12. What I find also worrying is the easy slide into authoritarianism. We now have an evening/night curfew, and some parts of the country have a blanket mandatory mask policy (ie you have to wear it everywhere outside your own home, even if you're alone in the street or the middle of a forest). None of this has any medical basis, but govenment & police say it's convenient for enforcement (no discussion, you're either outside after curfew or not, or you're wearing a mask or you're not, no discussion possible about such simple facts).

    1. Yes, I call it the shock and awe strategy for human rights violations. Just violate all human rights in myriad ways and the population simply doesn't know what has hit it. How can you begin judicial review of all of these regulations, given that there are so many of them and that they restrict almost every facet of our lives? As a human rights lawyer it is completely terrifying. It shows that human rights laws are not worth the paper they are written on; when the chips are really down, when you actually need them, they count for absolutely nothing.

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  14. Here here! I suspect my games will be even more full of things like shopping and masquerade balls as those things become even more exotic and unusual. ;p

    1. Don't say that - they WILL come back. If they don't I'm moving to Tanzania.

  15. noisms, I have never commented here before. I very much enjoy your content including, when you offer it, your thoughtful right of center political perspective.

    This blog post made me angry. I know I'm not going to persuade you of anything, since this is an argument on the internet, but I felt compelled to comment.

    The global pandemic is a crisis that calls for government action. Various nations' government lockdowns aren't authoritarian. They're the government fulfilling one of its core functions--providing goods that the public and the market can't themselves.

    You talk about individuals accepting risk, but it isn't them that bears that risk it's a geometrically scaling group of other people. In economics that's called a negative externality, e.g. unregulated chemical factories get all the benefit and pay none of the costs of dumping their waste in a river.

    You responded to Andrew Wright's observations about East Asia above by remarking that, being in "the East Asian virome. People in East Asia may simply have much greater prior immunity". There could be something to that, but it's not the main takeaway.

    Being in the East Asian virome--with SARS, H1N1, and H5N1--makes people take epidemics seriously, and it gives governments expertise in managing them. At the beginning of 2020, China had far and away the most cases, in an epidemic that grows exponentially. They now have close to zero and the US and UK, which were supposed to have the world's best infectious disease management capacity, are both close to the worst. East Asian nations acted early or undertook severe lockdowns. Life is now largely normal in China, people traveled freely all over the country for the Mid Autumn Festival. And, when the pandemic is over, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Australia are going to be far better off economically than than the US and Europe.

    I'm American, so I can't speak for the UK, but I can appreciate how frustrating it is to be asked to make personal sacrifices to adhere to a nonsense policy (I too hate 'living at work'). My town is pondering whether or not to close businesses again, knowing full well that the surrounding towns will not because no action is being taken at the state or federal level.

    But the answer to nonsense policy is good policy, and shirking the policy, good or ill, is not admirable. It just lets the market failures continue.

    In any case, I hope your experience with the lockdown continues to be grist for creative reflection.

    1. It's fair enough to be angry, and thank you for the polite comment.

      Naturally, I don't agree. I think your perspective is founded on initial errors. The first one, and it is one that I still do not understand the reason for - because everybody seems to make it - is accepting the official line from China that its strategy worked. We have no idea if that is true. China does not have anything like a free press. Its media is state-owned. It paints a picture it wants the world to see. Do not trust news or data from China.

      The second error is assuming this is an epidemic that grows exponentially. That was disproved back in February by Michael Levitt - a Nobel Laureate, no less. Most serious people accept that there is considerable prior immunity in populations through T-cells - we just don't know how much (estimates range from 30% to 80%).

      The third error is drawing your sample too widely. What do Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand have in common? Well, not a lot - and that includes responding to this virus. I have relatives in Japan I talk to all the time. My wife and I literally got back from spending a couple of months there at the start of this year. I lived there for a long time and consume Japanese news. Japan did not do 'track and trace' like, apparently, Taiwan and South Korea did. Japan had very little in the way of mandated lockdowns. They did almost no testing - they just tested people with symptoms (which apparently Taiwan also does). Back in March and April the UK news media was full of stories suggesting Tokyo would be a necropolis because of the lightness of the regulations there, and the lack of testing. What has happened? The pandemic has barely touched Japan. On the other end of the scale, you have New Zealand, an isolated and sparsely populated island which is in the middle of nowhere (the only country remotely close to it being Australia, which is itself also in the middle of nowhere), where lockdown purportedly "worked". (Who knows for how long.) It simply isn't a good idea to compare apples with oranges, let alone with kumquats and lychees.

      The appropriate strategy is to look at the data: what we know. The average age of death in the UK from this virus is about 82 - it is actually higher than the average age of death from all causes. The modal 'death' is somebody over the age of 75 with at least one serious comorbidity. What is the appropriate and proportionate public health response to this? Protect the elderly and frail and let everybody else's immune systems deal with it.

      The wider point about personal responsibility is: our responsibilities do not just involve stopping the spread of disease. They also involve making sure our children have prosperous and free futures, and making sure that our societies do not lapse into authoritarianism. Freedom is a practice - you have to DO it. I am going to continue doing it for the sake of myself, my daughter, my community and my society.

    2. One thing Japan does prove is that you can fuck up most everything else if you have good compliance on the mask front. Here in Korea we have lower death rates than Japan but not THAT much lower.

    3. The idea that it's all down to masks is an interesting example of how human beings are drawn to visual explanations for things. Bastiat's "seen versus the unseen" in action.

      In my view it's much more likely to be:
      a) Japanese people are way more hygenic than Europeans (probably the habit of washing one's hands and gargling every day when getting home from work has more to do with halting the spread than wearing a mask)
      b) Japanese people have much better diets than Europeans, which are high in vitamin D
      c) Japanese people are rarely obese and/or diabetic
      d) Japanese care homes are meticulously clean, like all Japanese public spaces
      e) Most elderly people are cared for by their families, not in care homes
      f) Prior immunity

      You can *see* a mask, so one is drawn instintively to the conclusion that it must be that.

    4. I forgot g) - in Japan they only usually test people with symptoms, so they've avoided the problems of false positives and falsely registering deaths as 'from covid' when the person has died from something else but just happened to have tested positive for covid recently.

    5. But then you're back to Korea where a lot of that doesn't apply (or at least doesn't apply to the same extent as Japan) and Korea has lower death rates than Japan. So either Korea's tracing efforts have made a huge difference or mask wearing helps a lot. Not sure if I see a third option.

  16. This was great, and weirdly comforting. I guess Boris is the Schmittian Sovereign able to suspend the supposed legal order 'for the duration of the emergency'.

    1. Yes, and the worst thing is, he decides when it ends.

      Interestingly Georgio Agamben, who almost singlehandedly made it respectable to read Schmitt again, has been an outspoken critic of lockdowns in Italy.

    2. I always had the feeling that subjecting the general population to Human Rights laws (at least after the Princess Caroline of Monaco case - you'd know better than me) had the perverse effect of pacifying the population and thus making them more susceptible to accept State tyranny. Where the original concept (at least in the Anglosphere) was Natural Rights as a guard against State tyranny, we have a Human Rights regime that entails constant State regulation of daily life. In particular, people grow accustomed to being afraid to speak, unless it's speech in tune with the prevailing mores - and even that is dangerous, since mores can shift radically over time. So in Britain after 20 years of it we've grown used to 'hear & obey, for there's no other way' (Tom Lehrer). When the government tells us something is for our own good, we no longer have the conviction that we are free to object.

    3. Yes. The problem is the idea that human rights have horizontal application. This is a creeping doctrine that results in everybody having human rights obligations towards each other, directly or indirectly, instead of being strictly limited to the relationship between individual and state.

    4. That's an interesting remark, and one that you never seem to hear in the media or from (self-declared) human rights activists.

      In general, do you have any decent book recommendations for non-lawyers on human rights?

    5. Yes, sadly human rights activists (not to mention judges) tend to be all in favour of direct or indirect horizontal application of human rights.

      It depends if you live in the US or Europe, as 'human rights' tend to mean very different things in practice. If you're in the UK Jonathan Sumption's "Trials of the State" is excellent. I actually have an academic monograph coming out in April on the subject.......