My Corona: Authorities, Bureaucracies, and the Illusions of Safety
Well, it appears the coronavirus will be coming soon to a set of lungs near you.
It’s hard to resist the notion that if only the powers that be would crack down – or would have cracked down sooner, because the ship has likely sailed on worldwide containment – they’d be able to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The “if only” notion keeps burbling up as I read the news each morning whilst repeatedly mumbling the word idiots into my coffee.
To paraphrase the words of one Ordinary Times writer – if ever there was a legitimate use of authoritarian government control, surely preventing the spread of a disease is it.
Admittedly, it’s my gut instinct too. As I watched people — some known to be infected with COVID-19 — toddling off the petri dish that was the Diamond Princess cruise ship and sent home to America (where I am NOW) and Canada (where I could be in 2 hours) on planes circulating recycled virus-laden air for everyone on board to breathe, I just want to scream to the sky because so many people mishandled and are mishandling the quarantine in about 1000 different ways.
But that’s the problem with authoritarianism, isn’t it? You put your safety in the hands of government workers who under the best case scenario are government workers – fallible, overworked, and underpaid, and under the worst case scenario, are Actual Bad Guys. They’re bound to screw it up, being inept in several dozen ways unique to bureaucracies and oppressive in several hundred other ways unique to authoritarian bureaucracies.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that authoritarian bureaucracies are comprised of Actual Bad Guys. We know that during the SARS epidemic the Chinese government threatened to execute or jail anyone who broke quarantine, so one must reasonably assume they did and are continuing to do the same with COVID-19. Some of the stories that have come out of China regarding the current quarantine have been chilling, like the boy with cerebral palsy left to die when his father and brother were quarantined, and I sadly suspect we will hear more terrible stories as the days go by. It seems that the Chinese government can’t contain a virus without threatening human life and liberty, including literally killing people.
That makes me wonder if preventing the spread of a disease truly is a legitimate use of government control after all. If governments can’t rise to the challenge of protecting public health without infringing on civil liberty, doesn’t mandating quarantines simply invite them to make heavy-handed terror-fueled decisions? Even when they’re well-intentioned (like quarantining people in an enclosed space like a cruise ship) their policies often make matters worse (like quarantining people in an enclosed space like a cruise ship), and when not well-intentioned, they create more human misery than they prevent.
Go down to the DMV and see what they’re up to. Do you trust the passionless drones at the DMV to do ANYTHING that really matters? I don’t. Why on earth would we assume some Chinese bureaucrats – living in a country where they use slave labor and force women to have abortions against their will – would be any different? Honestly, why would we even assume our own country would be different? If you believe we Americans are somehow different, better, and wiser than the Chinese, I have some oceanfront property in Iraq to sell you, and I like so totally promise you’ll find some WMD’s there!
After watching governments around the world operate for the past 100 years…200 years…ok pretty much forever…why are we in such a hurry to hand over the reins of our collective fate to a bunch of probably-corrupt morons who care more about themselves and their families and even their own reputations than they ever could about you and yours? I don’t expect any senior Chinese official gives a rat’s ass about my childrens’ lives and I would be a naive fool if I expected him to act in accordance with our needs. I don’t even expect American officials to care about my family. The Chinese wanted to “contain” coronavirus because it was embarrassing to them. That’s it. That’s the primary motivation of government bureaucrats since time began. Not public health, not saving lives. Preventing their own embarrassment.
But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that even if their motives are selfish, what matters is that they contain the disease. Greater good and all that, dontcha know.
One of the funnier COVID-19 moments of the past week, if you like black humor, which I suspect is where most of us are at right now, was when the Iranian deputy health minister appeared on several TV shows coughing and feverish, claiming that quarantines were Stone Age technology and that Iran wouldn’t be using them, only to reveal he had coronavirus.
Even if you believe authoritarianism can stop the spread of a highly contagious disease, coordinating the actions of authoritarian regimes is like herding cats. Even if an authoritarian quarantine could work in one country (and that is a BIG IF) if different governments refuse to quarantine or implement quarantines in ways that cause more harm than good (like quarantining people in an enclosed space like a cruise ship) they are pointless endeavors, violating civil liberty for an illusion of safety that is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Because the Iranian defense minister is right, and I hope he survives since he’s the only honest person I’ve seen on TV so far. If a disease is highly contagious like COVID-19 is, quarantines aren’t gonna work in a world with airplanes and cruise ships, regardless of how much freedom is trampled along the way. Quarantines really ARE Stone Age technology, like, literally. Quarantines probably worked great in the Stone Age. A highly contagious disease in our modern world with 8 billion of us jerks driving around coughing on stuff while we take selfies is gonna spread like wildfire. It’s not like the Middle Ages where a village might go down with something and you were safe 500 miles away in a whole ‘nother fiefdom you never left because there were highwaymen out there and you totally lacked a mule.
Modernity. It’s a small world after all.
But SARS! But MERS! Sadly, they’re both irrelevant. The reason why the quarantines for SARS and MERS worked and the quarantine for COVID-19 almost certainly won’t, has little to do with the ability of government to contain diseases. SARS and MERS were quarantine-able because MERS was hard to catch and in the case of SARS, the point of highest contagiousness came with the most severe symptoms, so the people who were at their most contagious were lying around feeling poorly. SARS and MERS were able to be stopped due to the properties of the diseases themselves and their successful containment did not reflect upon the wisdom and skill of the bureaucrats who attempted to contain them – because they had neither.
And as for last year’s measles outbreaks, most people in the population already had immunity to measles thanks to vaccination, so it didn’t spread very far. Despite being pretty much the most contagious disease of them all, measles was contained thanks to herd immunity. In all our quarantine success stories, the government was only able to prevent outbreaks because the diseases lent themselves towards being contained or because actions had been taken decades in advance that enabled containment.
I may just be a simple country woman, but seems to me there ain’t no containing a highly contagious disease if people can walk around feeling fine with no clue they’re even sick, spreading disease all the while. Especially not when the population at large has no immunity to it. You can violate civil liberties all you want to, short of nuking whole cities and killing more people than the disease would have to begin with (and probably not even then) it’s going to be incredibly hard if not impossible to contain a disease that’s presenting the way COVID-19 is.
But that’s actually the good news, too. The reason emerging zoonotic diseases are more dangerous to humans than the common cold is because diseases don’t “want” to kill their natural host. Diseases “want” to spread because spreading means they survive to infect another day. The best way for a disease to spread is by being both mild and contagious. But in the case of zoonotic diseases, humans aren’t their natural hosts. They spread in bats or rats or camels or pangolins or whatever and those critters have developed immunity to them over the generations by killing off the unfortunate who lacked the ability to fight them off. But humans haven’t ever, or rarely ever, encountered the diseases that animals spread, so they hit us hard at first.
Over the course of time, when a virus is communicable between humans the virus will mutate to become less virulent with time. Because a disease “wants” to spread, diseases tend to mutate so people can spread them far and wide without dying. Of course, a virus doesn’t actually “want” to do anything; it’s simply that the mild strains spread further and faster and the more virulent ones burn out before spreading very far.
So it’s actually kind of a good thing there may be symptom-free people who feel just fine walking around corona-ing all over the place…it makes it more likely that the strain of COVID-19 you and I encounter is a mild one.
You could make a case that that’s a good reason for quarantine. Maybe we can’t prevent the disease from spreading, but maybe we could slow it down enough to give it time to mutate. Maybe by quarantining the very sick, we actually favor the transmission of milder strains. (Some evidence indicates this may be the case with COVID-19.) And by slowing down transmission we can give hospitals and municipalities more time to prepare so our infrastructure will be less overwhelmed.
But even given all that, I’m still not convinced these benefits are worth empowering authoritarians.
A government strong enough to forcibly quarantine people for diseases has the ability to do a whole lot of other stuff. Of course we would never suggest that coronavirus might have come from a government lab because that would be a crazy conspiracy theory that polite people don’t admit to wondering about even though everyone secretly is, but let’s talk about some actual atrocities the US government and those working under the umbrella of the US Government have committed in the name of public health research.
-Repeatedly infected the mentally ill and disabled with syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, influenza, and other nasty microbes. Even national hero Jonas Salk was in on this.
-Infected babies with herpes, injected newborns and pregnant women with a host of radioactive concoctions, shoved radium rods up the noses of unsuspecting schoolchildren, and as you probably recall, notorious behaviorist John Watson tormented at least one baby into developing a phobia.
-Infected prisoners with bubonic plague, malaria, STDs, exposed them to radiation (including radiating their testicles, in some cases not even tracking to see if their future offspring were affected), and injected them with dioxin (aka Agent Orange) and a host of other chemicals.
–Released bacteria into the air over San Francisco, released bacteria into the subway system of both New York and Chicago, repeatedly released mosquitoes to investigate their use as a potential bioweapon, and may have released whooping cough bacteria into the air in Florida, although the latter claim is not fully substantiated.
-Cancer researcher Dr. Chester Southam repeatedly, over the course of decades, injected people with HeLa cells without consent and also injected terminal cancer patients with West Nile Virus (though he had consent for this latter experiment, it’s debatable how forthcoming he was). For his trouble he was made the president of the American Association of Cancer Research.
-Perhaps the most famous of these cases, withheld medical treatment from black syphilis patients in the Tuskegee experiment. A similar study was done by the US Government involving indigenous peoples in Guatemala.
This is a mere sampling of atrocities committed by the freest country the world has ever known. I cannot even imagine the types of things China does and is probably still doing in the name of the greater good. And yet people want to give government agencies both in the US and abroad MORE power?? You want to hand them the ability to restrict human movement too? Really?
If your answer is yes, because people are like so totally moral now or whatever, I’d just remind you that even when people aren’t being knowingly, deliberately evil, public health systems break down. Remember those two nurses who cared for the Ebola patient in Dallas, who both contracted Ebola, one of whom had been allowed by the CDC to fly on a plane despite having a fever because the CDC said it wasn’t high enough to be significant? Remember the doctor who came back from treating Ebola patients, was given a clean bill of health, then rode the NYC subway, went bowling, ate at restaurants, and jogged through Harlem before developing symptoms?
We know already that the quarantine protocols for sick patients in the US are grossly inadequate and aren’t being followed anyway. And just this week a sick person was not tested for COVID-19 despite having symptoms for four full days because they didn’t meet the CDC criteria for diagnosis.
As I wrote the previous few paragraphs, I couldn’t help but recall the several dozen times me or my children or people I know went to the hospital and were basically told “take two aspirin and call me in the morning”; suffice it to say we could all have been suffering from the Martian Death Flu for all the care the doctors took with our conditions. I even have firsthand experience with guidelines-gone-wrong; I was denied Tamiflu when I got the swine flu at 7 months pregnant because, just like the Ebola nurse, my fever wasn’t deemed high enough to meet the CDC’s criteria for diagnosis. It was only when I got sicker (even though I never did develop a higher temperature) and managed through sheer dumb luck to get in touch with my personal physician – he just happened to be on call that night instead of the 700 other doctors and nurses he was in practice with – I was given the medication that I needed in time for it to actually help. My fate very well may have hinged on a phone call.
Despite sensible precautions being in place, in the best medical system in the world, even during the Obama administration so you can’t even blame it on Trump defunding anything, government agencies seem incapable of handling medical crises uniformly and well. Putting a bureaucracy — even one made up of moral people in a free nation — in charge of public health has drawbacks and the biggest drawback is that bureaucracies are made up of people who are really not too interested in the fates of anyone beyond themselves and the folks they know. People — even the most caring and skilled — are fallible. People get overworked and burned out and follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit. People get tired and careless and sometimes end up making choices that are easier for them at the expense of others. People are self-interested and often put saving face and protecting their jobs ahead of what’s good for other people.
Bureaucracies are fallible even when they have the best of intentions, which they usually don’t. Beyond human foibles, power, even the silly, meaningless power of a medical professional on call making a choice to dole out $10 of medication to a person or not, makes otherwise good people turn bad and bad people turn worse. Why give up our liberty in exchange for something that isn’t going to work anyway because it’s a terrible system designed and implemented by fallible human beings?
We’re trading freedom for an illusion of safety, not even the real thing.
I understand that COVID19 is scary. I’m not thrilled about it either. But I don’t trust these guys and gals saying “I’m from the government, I’m here to help you”. The fox is begging me to be put in charge of the henhouse, telling me it’s for my own good, but he’s not only hungry, he’s terrible at being in charge. This fox is an inept bumbler on his best day, and he’s a freaking fox. Do we, the hens, really want to empower that fox to lock the door in the name of protecting us?
Personally, I’d like to keep the exits open just in case the cure is worse than the disease.