Wednesday, April 8, 2020

38. A Sorry Time for Humanity: How Lockdowns Are Digging Our Graves (Demographic Doom Podcast)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#38) released on 8 April 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is

I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today is Wednesday, April 8, 2020. We're now about two weeks into the lockdown phase of the COVID-19 epidemic when states and countries outside of Asia have essentially shut down their economies to try to combat the virus. I've got other episodes in the works on the long-term economic collapses we are facing, but these results for the most part have little to do with the virus. The virus was the spark that set off a pile of dynamite that was destined to go off anyway. Many of us predicted in 2019 that some sort of Black Swan would come along in 2020 to crash the economy, but we never could have predicted such an effective and efficient Black Swan that would strike human nature in just the right way to cause maximum economic damage.

In previous and future episodes, I will talk about the economic and demographic dynamite that was set in place long before the virus turned up, but for now, I want to record this short episode to explain as clearly and succinctly as I can how humanity as a whole is utterly botching and mismanaging its response to the virus.

Right now, most governments and individuals have one blunt, monolithic response to COVID-19: shut everything down. Close all nonessential businesses, send all workers home, maintain a six-foot distance from everyone else, avoid all forms of direct contact between you and anyone outside your immediate household. These restrictions are open-ended. There is no end date and no indication of how the shutdowns can ever be rolled back. It's just a blanket disabling of the economy with no end in sight.

I'm not saying that the shutdowns will be ineffective. I believe, in fact, that they will work. The virus will be beaten back and new cases will peak in the not-too-distant future. The problem, then, is dealing with the devastating effects of the shutdowns themselves, which are going to cause far more human misery than any virus. I predict the virus itself will be under control by the end of 2020, but the economic collapse will go on for years, made all the worse by the blunt and devastating way it started. No foreign foe could have caused more damage to our society than our own economic self-sabotage.

What is wrong with blanket lockdowns? They are blind and indiscriminate. They are conflating real threats with unlikely or imaginary ones, and they trying to provide absolute protection from both. The ultimate solution to the COVID epidemic is reducing the major vectors. It's vitally important to stop shaking hands, stop going out in public when you have a cough, stop touching things that a hundred other people have touched without some kind of sanitation or protection. If you reduce the major vectors, the things most likely to spread the virus, the epidemic dies out because it can't reach enough victims. You don't need to eliminate every single possible vector, which is what lockdowns are trying to do. Yes, the lockdowns are going to work, and lives will be saved, but in the long run the cure is going to be far worse than the disease. Human society cannot function without its economy, and humans seem to be doing everything in their power to destroy theirs. As the world economy continues its downward spiral, I wouldn't be surprised if more people die of outright starvation than died from the virus itself.

It's like you have a mouse loose in the walls of your house, and this mouse is potentially deadly because its droppings cause disease. So you take a sledgehammer and you start smashing the walls wherever you hear a sound. You keep smashing and smashing, and sooner or later, by shear luck, you kill the mouse. Yes, the threat of the mouse has been neutralized, but you've destroyed your own home in the process.

The effective, sustainable solution is something called a mousetrap. You got to put yourself in the position of the mouse, understand how he behaves, then you plan a solution that will precisely target the mouse's vulnerabilities. Maybe you try a piece of cheese on a spring-loaded trap, and thereby you kill the mouse without destroying your own home. Humanity right now seems entirely incapable of this kind of foresight and strategizing. It can only blindly smash at the walls til the mouse is dead.

Here's a more realistic analogy: the 9/11 attacks. 3000 people were killed and thousands more more affected in aerial bombing of the World Trade Center. It was a truly tragic and horrific event, but it was nowhere near as deadly or costly as the two quagmire wars the US started in response. Even if you only look at the American costs, in lives lost and trillions spent, the wars far dwarfed the costs of the original attacks. The costs multiply many fold when you factor in the costs and suffering to people of Iraq and Afghanistan. To be sure, these were despotic regimes at the time and deserved to fall, but after all the trillions spent and lives destroyed, you can't say that America made things better. Most importantly, you can't say we achieved the intended goal of reducing terrorism. Yes, terrorists are no longer crashing into buildings in hijacked planes, but this goal was accomplished by simple, targeted changes in TSA security. The two expensive quagmire wars did nothing to improve our security.

If you lived through the post-9/11 era, you may remember just how unstoppable the call to war was. Nearly everyone in Congress voted for it. Nearly everyone in the street seemed to be in favor of it. The natural kneejerk human reaction was that we were attacked, so we has to attack back, and it seemed that everyone in the country was on board. If you didn't believe the wars were a good idea, you kept your ideas to yourself, because you would be labeled a traitor if you spoke out. Some entertainers were essentially blacklisted for opposing the war. Whenever you get 80% or 90% of the American public supporting something, with no dissent allowed, something is seriously wrong. I remember thinking at the time, "This is going to end badly."

You may remember the mindset of the day after 9/11. The airline network completely shutdown. People used whatever means possible to get home, where they essentially locked themselves down, just like they are doing today. People saw terrorists everywhere, in even the most innocuous events. Every package delivered was carefully screened for a possible bomb. Innocent people were treated as terrorists for no other crime than having foreign-looking features. If you talked in Arabic on a cellphone, you were a terrorist planning an attack. It was sorry time in human history.

People didn't realize at the time how limited the attacks really were. Terrorists with very little resources had discovered a clever loophole in security, and they exploited it. The loophole was quickly closed and the threat instantly ended by changes in airport security, but the global damage caused by the overreaction to the threat went on for two decades and is still with us today. If nothing else, the US racked up huge debts pursuing those fruitless wars, contributing to the tragic government debt crisis I'll talk about in my next podcast.

We are repeating the same exercise with the coronavirus. Everyone is seeing viral particles everywhere, even in places they cannot possibly exist. People are hunkering down at home as though the virus was everywhere and can do everything. Yes, the virus is insidious, as viruses go, but it can't do all the supernatural things that people's paranoid actions imply. It's not going to get to you in a state park or on a breezy beach where the nearest beach-goer is 20 feet away. It's probably not even going to get you when you're in a room talking to someone from a normal distance. You're going to get it from shaking hands. You're going to get it from touching door handles that a hundred other people have touched . There are probably a dozen key vectors that spread 90% of the disease. If you can address those major things with simple remedies, then you don't need to worry about the other 10%, because the transmission is so limited that it won't sustain itself over time.

As with the march to war in 2001, you are treated as a traitor today if you say anything against the lockdowns. If you try to add an nuance to it, like suggesting that one assumed vector isn't worth worrying about, people get upset. "What are you trying to do, KILL MY GRANDMOTHER???" And the media is cheerleading all of this. News anchors are dutifully reporting from their home instead of the studio as though they were contributing to the War Effort. The universal message is stay at home, no matter what the cost; trust no one, eliminate all risk. All that matters now is saving lives.

Lives do matter, but they have to be put into perspective. Saving your civilization matters even more, and you can't have a civilization if you don't have a functioning economy where people go out and do things. If no one goes out and buys cars, your auto industry collapses and millions lose their jobs. If no one travels, vast segments of the economy fall to ruin and will probably never be revived.

Some of the worst advice comes from medical professionals, because they have been trained to eliminate all risk, no matter how slight. If you work in a hospital, you live in an environment where the aim is to eliminate every conceivable disease vector no matter the cost. This kind of perfect sanitation is impossible in the outside world. When you see a doctor recommending that healthy people wear masks in public at all times, he isn't considering the costs to society. That's not his department. He's not trained in evaluating social or economic costs. He has been trained in eliminating all forms of disease risk. Doctors live in sterile bubbles and can't be expected to understand the needs of a complex economy.

I also think computer modeling of the virus is absolutely useless. A computer model is only as good as the assumptions you put into it, and the Number One variable in virus distribution is human behavior, The virus is the virus. It has stable characteristics, but human behavior can change in a minute, especially if people think their lives depend on it. If everyone continued to behave exactly as they did before the virus, the computer model is going to tell you one thing. If they suddenly decide, en masse, not to shake hands anymore, you're going to get an entirely different result. With our instantaneous media, voluntary changes in behavior can sweep through society in a matter of days, but there will always be a delay in the disease statistics. Deaths and serious cases today may reflect human behavior 2-3 weeks ago, before many people were taking precautions. As widespread changes of behavior take hold, I think we'll see a drop in cases.

This puts governments in a bind, because they won't know what caused the drop. If they congratulate themselves and say, "Whoo-hoo, our shutdown worked!" what are they going to do next? This "success" implies that if they relax the lockdowns, the disease is going to come right back again. On the other hand, if the drop was caused by a simple change of behavior, like not shaking hands, then the lockdown was irrelevant all along. It's a Catch-22: If governments claim the lockdowns were successful, then they can never be ended. If the real success was simple behavior change like not shaking hands, then the lockdowns were overkill, and the government would have to admit its error. That's why there's no easy exit from Lockdown Mode.

In the coming months, studies will reveal the true infectiousness of various forms of transmission. I predict that shaking hands will be found to be a major, major form of transmission, perhaps even the biggest. This is the reason a disproportionate number of politicians seem to be getting the disease: They shake a lot of hands. I also predict that commonly touched surfaces will turn out to be a major vector. When you pull a door handle to enter a store, hundreds of people might have touched the same door handle that day. If just one of them has the disease, there's a good chance you will get it. If someone who has the disease coughs in your immediate vicinity, they spew droplets into the air, which you could breath in. This is probably an important vector, but it requires a cough or sneeze.

There are many other vectors that are real but probably not statistically significant. Asymptomatic transmission, where someone shows no symptoms but distributes the virus anyway, is probably real but I predict that it will not be seen as major vector. To distribute the virus effectively, you need a lot of your lung cells to be infected and spewing out particles. Remember that a virus can't reproduce on its own. It has to co-op and kill your body's own cells, which produces symptoms.

I also predict that aerosolization will be seen as a trivial vector. When someone with the disease coughs in your general vicinity, the risk is high that you will breathe in his droplets and they will go directly to your lung cells without any intermediate steps. These droplets fall to earth quickly, however, and you're not a risk if you are more than a few meters away. Aerosolization refers to the virus attaching to even smaller droplets or objects in the air, like dust particles, and traveling long distances in the air to reach their target. In the aerosolization scenario, you can be walking through an airport terminal with no one around you and catch the disease from the ambient air. This is people's usual excuse for never leaving home. Just breathing the air outside might kill you. While this may be technically be possible, I predict it will be a trivial factor.

In terms of mitigation, I suspect that many of the generally accepted lockdown rules are having only trivial effects. Studies are already beginning to show that school closings are counterproductive. If you keep kids in school, you can control them; you can manage their contact behavior, and you can train them in good hygiene practices. If you kick them out of school, you've lost any control whatsoever. You've just let them loose on society.

I suspect that universal use of face masks by healthy people will not be proven cost-effective. Yes, it will probably save a life or two, but is the benefit great enough to even justify the cost of the mask?

My predictions will be proven true or false over time. The point is, there are only a few major vectors, and you can control those vectors by fairly simple and low cost methods like not shaking hands. If you control the major vectors, you don't need to worry about the minor ones. No one seems be talking about this. I don't see any intelligent conversation about the cost-benefit ratios of various mitigation methods. Right now, it's all about locking everything down, cutting everyone off and stopping all forms of economic activity. All that matters now is saving lives, the economy be damned.

Well, if you damn the economy, the economy will damn you.


For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there.