Mental Pandemic and Ideological Lockdown

“Don’t let anyone arguing to “reopen the economy” get away with “we have to let people work to stay alive.” That’s a rhetorical trick aimed at suckering you into accepting their toxic worldview. The real question is this: how did the richest nation in the world get into a mess like this in the first place?”
~Sam Smith, How Many Dollars Is a Life Worth (and Why Did We Choose This)?

If you’re familiar with low-carbohydrate diet debate, you’d know one of the big names is Ivor Cummins, AKA the Fat Emperor. He isn’t a health professional but a chemical engineer by training. For some reason, several engineers and others in technological fields have become major figures in the alternative health community, especially diet and nutrition along with fasting, sometimes in terms of what is called biohacking. They have the skill set to dig into complex data and analyze systems in a way most doctors aren’t able to do. Cummins runs a health podcast, is active on social media, and has a large following. His popularity is well deserved.

He has been on our radar the past couple of years, but recently, along with Dr. Paul Saladino, he has been at the center of contentious debate about COVID-19 and lockdowns. Besides seeing his active Tweeting, we were reminded of him with some commentary by Chuck Pezeshki, another thoughtful guy we respect (see his post, The Curious Case of the Fat Emperor — or How Not Understanding How to Merge Knowledge is Creating a Culture War). Here is Pezeshki’s description of Cummins: “What is most interesting is that he was not only a systems integrator — someone who floats between the different disciplines churning out various subsystems for complex products. He was a “systems system integrator” — where he was in charge of a team of systems integrators. The first-level integration positions are relatively common. Boeing has a whole employment line dedicated to Liaison Engineering, which they pronounce “Lie – a -zon”. The second tier up — not common at all.” So, not an average bloke, by any means.

We agree with Cummins in sharing his views on the importance of diet and metabolic health. Right from the beginning, we had the suspicion that COVID-19 might never have reached pandemic levels if not for the fact that the majority of people in the industrialized world now have metabolic syndrome — in the US, 88% of the population has some combination of major metabolic issues: obesity, diabetes, pre-diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, liver disease, etc. These conditions are prominently listed as comorbidities of COVID-19, as metabolic health is inseparable from immune system health. Also, we’re in line with his anti-authoritarian attitude. Like Cummins, on principle, we’re certainly not for top-heavy policy measures like lockdowns, unless there is good justification. Yet early on, there was strong justification as a response to emergency conditions and many, including Cummins, initially supported lockdown.

Since then, he has become a strident opponent and, even as his heart seems in the right place, we find his present approach to be grating. He has become ideologically polarized and has fallen into antagonistic behavior, including dismissive name-calling. This doesn’t encourage meaningful public debate. We’re trying to resist being pulled into this polarized mentality in looking at the situation as dispassionately as possible, especially since we have no desire to dismiss Cummins who we otherwise agree with. We’re not even sure we exactly disagree about lockdowns either, as we feel undecided on the issue with a more wait-and-see attitude in anticipating a possible worst second wave if caution is thrown to the wind with a simultaneous ending of lockdown, social distancing, and mask-wearing as is quite likely in the United States. The public attitude tends toward either it’s the Plague or it’s nothing, either everything must be shut down or there should no restrictions at all.

Cummins strength is also his weakness. As an engineer, his focus is on data, not on the messy lived experience of humans. In his recent Tweeting, he is constantly demanding data, but it feels like he is overlooking fundamental issues. Even if there was good enough data available, we only have data for what is measured, not for what is not measured. About lockdowns, the confounding factors in comparing countries are too numerous and there are no controls. But to his engineering mind, data is data and the details of human life that aren’t measured or can’t be measured simply are irrelevant. Engineering is a hard science. But how societies operate as complex systems — that are living and breathing, that have billions of moving parts — can’t be understood the same way as technical systems to be managed in a corporate setting, as is Cummins’ professional expertise. He appears to have no knowledge of sociology, anthropology, psychology, cultural studies, philosophy, history, etc; that is to say he has no larger context in which to place his demands for ‘data’.

The dietitian/nutritionist Adele Hite hit the nail on the head in a response she gave in another Twitter thread: “You know data is never *just* data, right? It comes from somewhere, is collected, displayed & interpreted via some methods & assumptions & not others. […] Take a few science studies courses? maybe some science history? or just read some Bruno Latour & get back to me. It’s not nihilism to recognize that there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere” (the context of her comment, I presume, is here working on a PhD in communication, rhetoric, and digital media that, as she says on her official website’s About page, taught her “to ask questions I couldn’t have even articulated before”). She also points out the importance of listening to scientists and other experts in the specific fields they were educated and trained in, as expertise is not necessarily transferable as demonstrated by the smart idiot effect that disproportionately affects the well-educated.

According to his standard bio found around the web, Cummins “has since spent over 25 years in corporate technical leadership and management positions and was shortlisted in 2015 as one of the top 6 of 500 applicants for “Irish Chartered Engineer of the Year”.” That means he is a guy who was shaped by the corporate world and was highly successful in climbing the corporate career ladder. He then went on to become an entrepreneur as a podcaster, blogger, author, and public speaker. That is to say he is a high-achieving capitalist within the businesses of others and his own business, not to mention an individual having benefited from the status quo of opportunities, privileges and advantages afforded to him. The sticking point with lockdowns is that they don’t fit into the ruling capitalist ideology or at least not its rhetoric, although oligopolistic big biz like Amazon and Walmart does great under lockdown.

Our own biases swing in a different direction. We’ve had working class jobs our entire lives and presently we’re unionized public employees. Opposite of someone like Cummins, we don’t see capitalism as the great salvation of humanity nor do we blame lockdowns for economic decline and failure that preceded the pandemic for generations. All that has changed is that the moral rot and psychopathic depravity of our society has been exposed. That brings us to our main point of contention, that of a typically unquestioned capitalist realism that has been forced to the surface of public awareness with pandemic lockdown, as previously touched upon with the issue of what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs (Bullshit Jobs and Essential Workers).

Though lacking a strong view on lockdowns, we do have a strong view of those with strong views on lockdowns. It is hard to ignore the fact that those who are most vocal about reopening the economy are those whose lives are least at risk, those not working in service jobs (Their Liberty and Your Death). One might note that Cummin’s precise demographic profile (a younger, healthier, wealthier, white Westerner) is the complete opposite of the demographics hardest hit by COVID-19 and problems in general (the elderly, the sick, the poor, and minorities); though to his credit, he has spoken about the importance of protecting vulnerable populations, even if his understanding of vulnerability in our kind of society is ideologically and demographically constrained.

Here is the point. You won’t hear many working poor people, especially disadvantaged minorities, demanding to have the right to risk their lives and their family’s lives to work poverty wages, few benefits, and no affordable healthcare to ensure the capitalist ruling elite maintain their high levels of profits. Imagine how frustrating and disheartening it must be to be poor and/or minority as you listen to wealthy white people who are healthy and have great healthcare discuss lockdowns versus reopenings when the infection and mortality rates in your community is several times worse than in the rest of the country (Jared Dewese, Black people are dying from coronavirus — air pollution is one of the main culprits; Jeffrey Ostler, Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans).

Think about this: “black people are more than 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people, and Latino people are nearly twice as likely to die of the virus as white people” (Bill Hathaway, New analysis quantifies risk of COVID-19 to racial, ethnic minorities); now increase that death rate several times higher when comparing poor minorities to wealthier whites, high inequality locations to low inequality locations, et cetera. And it’s even worse for other minorities: “In Arizona, the Indigenous mortality rate is more than five times the rate for all other groups, while in New Mexico, the rate exceeds seven times all other groups” (APM Research Lab, THE COLOR OF CORONAVIRUS: COVID-19 DEATHS BY RACE AND ETHNICITY IN THE U.S.). For those important people on the corporate media or the thought leaders on social media, COVID-19 for their own communities really might not be any worse than the common flu. Meanwhile, for disadvantaged populations, COVID-19 could be described as nothing other than a pandemic in the fullest sense. Yet the fate of these disadvantaged is being decided by the very people disconnected from the reality of those who will be most harmed.

Let’s put this in context of a specific example — in the District of Columbia where so many powerful people, mostly whites, live in determining public policy, blacks are only 44% of the population but 80% of the COVID-19 deaths. Many states show immense disparities: “In Kansas, Black residents are 7 times more likely to die than White residents. In Wisconsin and Washington D.C., the rate among Blacks is 6 times as high as it is for Whites, while in Michigan and Missouri, it is 5 times greater. In Arkansas, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, and Tennessee, Blacks are 3 times more likely to die of the virus than Whites. In many states, the virus is also killing Black residents several multiples more often than Asian and Latino residents” (APM Research Lab).

It’s not only that minorities are more likely to die from COVID-19 but more likely to get infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the first place and so this is another multiplier effect as measured in the total death count. This is exaggerated to an even greater extent with poor brown people in some developing countries where COVID-19 is also killing large numbers of the young (Terrence McCoy & Heloísa Traiano, In the developing world, the coronavirus is killing far more young people; Louise Genot, In Brazil, COVID-19 hitting young people harder). COVID-19 may be a disease of the elderly and sick among well-off white Westerners, but to other demographics the entire population is vulnerable. Furthermore, mostly ignored in Western data are poor whites and rural whites or even middle aged whites — all of which, in the United States, have shown increasing mortality rates in recent years. There is no data, as far as we know, with a demographic breakdown of deaths within racial categories. Then there is the issue of pollution, in how it increases vulnerability and maybe in how it could help spread the virus itself by riding on air pollution particles, and of course pollution is concentrated where poverty is found — keep in mind that pollution alone, without pandemic, is linked to 40% of deaths worldwide (Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs; & An Invisible Debt Made Visible); combine that with COVID-19, pollution is then linked to 80% of deaths (Damian Carrington, Air pollution may be ‘key contributor’ to Covid-19 deaths – study). [For more resources on the inequities of COVID-19, see ending section of this post.]

By the way, we appreciated that Chuck Pezeshki did touch upon this kind of issue, if only briefly: “The problem is that because COVID-19 is truly novel, ringing that bell, while it may daylight the various ills of society, it also at the same time obscures responsibility for all the various ills society has manifested on all its various members. I have a whole essay, almost written, on the meatpacking plant fiasco, which is really more of a damning indictment of how we treat people at the bottom of the economic ladder than the COVID-19 crisis. For those that want the short version — we keep them trapped in low wage positions with no geographic mobility, with undocumented status, and poor education so they have no choice but to continue their jobs. COVID-19 is just an afterthought.” It’s too bad such understanding hasn’t been included to a greater extent in public debate and news reporting.

This is a situation about which everyone, of course, has an opinion; still, not all opinions come with equal weight of personal experience and implications. Being forced to potentially risk your health and maybe life while on the frontlines of a pandemic creates a different perspective. We are more fortunate than most in having a decent job with good pay and benefits. But similar to so many other working class folk with multigenerational households, if we get infected in our working with the public, we could become a disease vector for others, including maybe bringing the novel coronavirus home to family such as our elderly parents with compromised immune systems. The working poor forced to work out of desperation have no choice to isolate their vulnerable loved ones in distant vacation homes or highly priced and protected long-term care centers.

Meanwhile, some of the well-off white Westerners dominating public debate are acting cavalier in downplaying the concerns of the vulnerable or downplaying how large a number of people are in that vulnerable space. We’ve even seen Ivor Cummins, an otherwise nice guy, mocking people for not embracing reopenings as if they were being irrational and cowardly — with no acknowledgement of the vast disparities of disadvantaged populations. Imagine trying to have a public debate about government policy in a city or state where the poor and minorities are two to seven times more likely to die. Does anyone honestly think the poor and minorities would be heard and their lives considered equally important? Of course, not. No one is that stupid or naive. Now consider that the disparities of wealth, pollution, sickness, and death is even greater at the national level and still greater yet in international comparisons. At the local level, the poor and minorities might hope to get heard, but they are as if invisible or non-existent within the public debate beyond the local.

Still, that isn’t to say we’re arguing for a permanent lockdown even as we do think the lockdown, if only for lack of needed leadership and preparedness, was probably necessary when the crisis began — from the DataInforms Twitter account: “Not saying it’s the right action if you’ve planned for a Pandemic. Saying it’s the inevitable action to minimize risk, when you haven’t planned for a Pandemic. By not paying attention to 2003 outbreak we brought this on ourselves.” Besides being politically paralyzed with corrupt and incompetent leadership, we Americans are an unhealthy population that is ripe for infectious diseases; and one could easily argue that a public health crisis has been developing for centuries, in particularly these past generations (Dr. Catherine Shanahan On Dietary Epigenetics and Mutations, Health From Generation To Generation, Dietary Health Across Generations, Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration, Malnourished Americans, & The Agricultural Mind). The terrain theory of infection proposes that it is the biological conditions of health that primarily determine the chances of infection and hence, in a situation like this, determine how bad it will get as a public health crisis. As we earlier noted, the 1918 flu also began mildly before becoming fully pandemic later in the year with a second wave (Then the second wave of infections hit…), not that I’m arguing about the probability of such an outcome since our present knowledge about pandemics in the modern industrialized world, the West in particular, is only slightly better than full ignorance (Kevin Kavanagh, Viewpoint: COVID-19 Modeling: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics).

All of this puts us in an odd position. We simultaneously agree and disagree with Cummins and many others who support his view. Our main irritation is how the entire ‘debate’ gets framed, in terms of cartoonish portrayal of libertarianism versus authoritarianism. The frame ends up dominating and shutting down any genuine discussion. We noticed this in how, for all the vociferous opinionating about lockdowns, there is still no agreement even about what is a lockdown. When confronted about this, Cummins has repeatedly refused to define his terms, the most basic first step in attempting to analyze the data, in that one has to know what kind of data one needs in knowing what one is hoping to compare. The haziness of his language and the slipperiness of his rhetoric is remarkable considering engineers like him are usually praised for their precision and held up as exemplars in the alternative health community.

We weren’t the only ones to make this observation — Gorgi Kosev asked, “Did you reply to the people who asked to specify what counts as lockdown vs what counts as distancing?” Cummins responded to many other Tweets in that thread but he did not answer this question and appears to not be interested in such a dialogue. To be fair, I did come across one of his Tweets buried deep in another thread, in response to an inquiry by Gregory Travis, where he vaguely clarified what he meant but still did not operationalize his definition in a way that would help us categorize and measure accordingly. When asked for a specific list of what he considered to be lockdowns and not, he would not specify. In attempting to get at what is the issue at debate, Philippa Antell asked him, “Are you comparing lockdown Vs non lockdown ( in which case define those in detail)? Or sensible Vs non sensible lock down rules (again define)?” Cummins did not further respond. A point we and others made to him is that there has been a wide spectrum of government policies — Toshi Clark said that, “This whole thing seems predicated on making a distinction between distancing and lockdown policies. It’s not a binary thing”; and someone simply named Ed said that, “I think one of the problems Ivor is it doesn’t have to be black and white but shades of grey. Lockdown is a terrible term that is unhelpful as there has never been a full lockdown and no measure of each mitigation.”

Such comments were the opportunity to begin debate, rather than in the way Cummins took them as the end of debate. I get that he is probably frustrated, but he is avoiding the very heart of the issue while continuing to demand ‘data’ as if facts could exist separately from any frame of analysis and interpretation. I’m sure he isn’t actually that naive and so, even if his frustration is understandable, it’s unfortunate he won’t get down to the nitty gritty. As such, others understandably feel frustrated with him as well. One of the main points of frustration, as shown above, is clear and yet remains unresolved. In our own Tweeting activity responding to Cummins, we noted that, “It feels like he is trying to force debate into a polarized black/white frame that turns it into a political football, a symbolic proxy for something else entirely.” At this point, it’s no longer really about the data for it has become an ideological battle verging on a full-on culture war, and one of the first victims is the mental flexibility to shift frames as the polarized opponents become ever more locked into their defensive positions — a lockdown of the mind, as it could be described.

Let’s consider a concrete example to show how the ideological lines get drawn in the ideological mind, as opposed to how fuzzy are those lines in reality. In one of his few responses to my seeking to engage, Cummins shared an earlier Twitter thread of his where he compared the ‘social distancing’ of Sweden and the ‘lockdown’ of New Jersey; a bad comparison on multiple levels. Yet when asked what is a lockdown, he still never offered a definition and, even more interesting, he decidedly emphasized that his priority was not the data itself but his principles, values, and beliefs. He was asked point blank that, “Since I showed that there effectively was no implemented and enforced stay at home full lockdown in even some of the worst hit places like NYC, what are we talking about in terms of a lockdown? What is the real issue of debate?” And his answer was, “Civil Liberties and our future freedoms. Principles. And the Scientific Method being respected.” Those principles seem fine, at least in theory assuming they are part of a genuinely free society that sadly is also theoretical at present. The problem comes with his conflating all of science with his libertarian beliefs taken as ideological realism. His libertarian conviction seems to be both his starting assumption and his ending conclusion. It’s not that the facts don’t matter to him, that he is merely posturing, but it is obvious that the data has become secondary in how the debate is being so narrowly constrained as to predetermine what evidence is being sought and which questions allowed or acknowledged.

Our interest was genuine, in seeking to clarify terms and promote discussion. That is why we pointed to the actual details in how it played out in actual implementation. In New York City, there was a supposed full lockdown with a stay at home order, but that didn’t stop New Yorkers from crowding in public places (Stephen Nessen, More New Yorkers Are Crowding Onto Buses And Subways Despite Stay-At-Home Order) since it’s not like there is a Chinese-style authoritarian government to enforce a Wuhan-style lockdown. That is the problem of comparisons. In terms of effective actions taken, the Swedish example involved more restrictions than did what happened in New Jersey and New York City. That is because the Swedish, in their conformist culture of trust, enforced severe restrictions upon themselves without government order and for all practical purposes the Swedish had implemented a greater lockdown than anything seen in the United States. Unless a police officer or soldier is pointing a gun at their head, many Americans will continue on without wearing masks or social distancing. This is a cultural, not a political, difference.

It is bizarre to see libertarian-minded individuals using the example of the anti-libertarian Swedish society as evidence in defense of greater libertarianism in societies that are completely different from Sweden. These are the same people who would normally criticize what they’d deem an oppressive Scandinavian social democracy under non-pandemic conditions, but all of a sudden Sweden is the best country in the world. If we think the Swedish are so awesome, then let’s imitate their success by having the highest rate of individuals living alone in the world as promoted by government policy, a population that does social distancing by default, a cultural willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the common good, a strong social safety net paid for with high taxes on the rich, and socialist universal healthcare for all (Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism). Once we implement all of those perfect conditions of public preparedness for public health crises in promoting the public good, then and only then can we have a rational and meaningful debate about lockdowns and social distancing.

Otherwise, the critics are being disingenuous or oblivious about the real issues. Such confusion is easy to fall into during an anxiety-inducing crisis as we all struggle to see clearly what is at stake. Cummins is highly intelligent well informed and, most important, he means well. But maybe he has lost his bearings in being pulled into ideological polarization, which is a common malady in Western society even at the best of times — one might call it an ideological pandemic. No one is immune to such ideological mind viruses, which is all the more reason to be highly aware of the risk of memetic contagion and so handle the material with the proper intellectual protective gear, rather than assuming it’s only those other people who are mindless ideologues ignoring the cold hard facts. Obsessing over data can create yet another blindness, specifically when it leads one to seeking the data that confirms what one is looking for. The reality of diverse data, conflicting data, and missing data is far more murky, and the mud really gets stirred up when we are floundering amidst unstated assumptions and undefined terms.

The present debate isn’t really about public response to infectious disease. If it was only about that, we could be more fully on board with Cummins since, in terms of health data, we are in his camp. The other component to the ideological conflict is a failure of public trust in countries like the United states, as opposed to the success of public trust elsewhere. In terms of economics and health, the Swedish had comparably similar results as their Nordic neighbors who followed different government policies, which further demonstrates it’s more about culture than anything else. Lockdowns did cut the number of lives lost in those countries, but the greatest protection appears to have been cultural, which is to say how the population behaves under various government policies. Scandinavians have a culture of trust. The United States does not. I can’t speak for other countries that fared less well such as Italy and Spain, although hard-hit Brazil obviously has some public trust issues. Social distancing without any closures and restrictions probably works great in almost any strong culture of trust, whereas a lack of full lockdown could be a catastrophe where public trust is deficient. That would be a more interesting and meaningful debate.

What is it about American and British society, in particular, that soft issues of society and culture are reduced and rationalized away or dismissed and diminished by putting everything into a frame of economics and politics? It used to be that religion in the form of the Christian church was used as the frame to explain everything. But now capitalist realism, both in economics and politics, is the dominant religion. Notice most of the opponents of lockdowns are doing so in defense of capitalism (liberty), not in defense of democracy (freedom). It’s posing a particular kind of politics in opposition to a particular kind of economics. The idea of a genuinely free society is not in the frame, not part of the debate.

This is part of an old ideological conflict in the Western mind. It erupted more fully when the neoliberals took power, as signaled by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that, “there’s no such thing as society.” Karl Polanyi theorized about the rise of a market culture where everything came to be understood through an economic lens. Even politics has been made an extension of capitalist realism. This is more broadly part of a mindset obsessed with numbers. Everything can be measured. Everything can have a price put on it. Not only was religion demoted but all ‘soft’ approaches to understanding humanity and society. This is how we can have a debate in comparing different cultures while few people even bother to mention culture itself, as if culture either does not matter or does not exist. We have no shared frame to understand the deeper crisis we are suffering, of which the perception of pandemic threat and political malaise is merely a symptom.

The sense of conflict we’re experiencing in this pandemic isn’t fundamentally about an infectious virus and governmental response to it. It’s about how many societies, United States most of all, have suffered a crisis in loss of public trust based on destruction of traditional community, authority, self-sacrifice, etc. Libertarianism is inseparable from this cultural failure and simply further exacerbates it. In opposing authoritarianism, libertarianism becomes psychologically and socially dependent on authoritarianism, in the way drug rehab centers are dependent on influx of drug addicts (think of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly). What gets lost is radical envisioning of a society free of ideological addiction of divisive polarization that is used for propagandistic social control. Control the public mind with frame of libertarianism versus authoritarianism and the ruling elite can guarantee freedom is suppressed.

We must understand difference between Latin ‘liberty’ and Germanic ‘freedom’. The former originated from the legal status of not being a slave in slave society; whereas the latter as etymologically related to ‘friend’ originally meant being a member of a free society, as being among friends who would put common good over individual interest. Philip K. Dick liked to say that, “The Empire never ended,” in seeing the Roman Empire as fundamentally identical to our own. Well, the Norman Conquest never ended either. Romanized Norman thought and language still rules our public mind and society, economics and politics. That is the sad part. Even the word freedom has become another way to invoke the liberty worldview of a slave society. This is taken as the unquestioned given of capitalist realism. Negative freedom (Latin liberty) almost entirely replaces positive freedom (Germanic freedom). Another difference between Latin is that it was more abstract than German. So liberty as negative freedom is much more of an ideological abstraction. One can have freedom in theory even while being oppressed in lived reality. Liberty ideology can justify lack of freedom.

Interestingly, this brings us back to an important point that Chuck Pezeshki made in his post where he was looking upon Ivor Cummins with more support and sympathy. One of the reasons,” suggested Pezeshki, “I fervently believe our current society in the U.S. is collapsing is the loss of noblesse oblige — the idea that those of us that are better off in some definable way should help those who are less fortunate. I view my role as a full professor as one where I am supposed to think about complex and complicated things for the common good, just like a rich person is supposed to build housing developments for the poor.” Basically, we agree, even if we take a meandering path and throw out a bunch of side commentary along the way. Noblesse oblige, one might note, was a carryover from feudalism. Like the Commons, it was intentionally destroyed in creating our modern world. We have yet to come to terms with the fallout from that mass annihilation of the public good. There has been nothing to replace what was trampled upon and thrown away.

Such loose human realities can neither be counted in profit nor measured in data. Yet they determine what happens in our society, maybe even determining whether an infectious disease is a momentary inconvenience or turns into a deadly pandemic, determining whether it kills high numbers of the vulnerable or not. The terrain in which a virus can gain purchase is not only biological but environmental and economic, political and cultural. We need to talk not only about physical health for a public health crisis is about the health of the entire society and in this age of interconnectivity with mass trade, mass transportation and mass travel that increasingly includes the larger global society. It’s not only about your own health but the health of everyone else as well, the least among us most of all.

* * *

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Harvard Researchers Find ‘Inequality On Top Of Inequality’ In COVID-19 Deaths
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No Wealth, Poor Health: COVID-19 Has Exposed the Depth of Inequality For Marginalized Communities
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How The Crisis Is Making Racial Inequality Worse
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Social distancing in Black and white neighborhoods in Detroit: A data-driven look at vulnerable communities
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COVID-19 outbreak exposes generations-old racial and economic divide in New York City
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Divergent death tolls in New York’s Rockaways show Covid-19’s uneven reach
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Poor Health, Poverty and the Challenges of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean
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Iran COVID-19 Crisis: Poor People Are Victims of Regime’s Criminal Policy of Forcing People Back to Work
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COVID-19 severity and air pollution: exploring the connection
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Can COVID-19 Spread Through Air Pollution?
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Air Pollution Is Found to Be Associated with Vulnerability to COVID-19
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Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross-sectional study
by Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery, Benjamin M. Sabath, Danielle Braun, & Francesca Dominici

Black people are dying from coronavirus — air pollution is one of the main culprits
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Covid-19 Flares Up in America’s Polluted ‘Sacrifice Zones’
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Study shows how air pollution makes COVID-19 mortality worse for marginalized populations
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Air pollution, racial disparities, and COVID-19 mortality
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Air Pollution and COVID-19 are worsening existing health inequalities
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In the Shadows of America’s Smokestacks, Virus Is One More Deadly Risk
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‘I’m Scared’: Study Links Cancer Alley Air Pollution to Higher Death Rates From Covid-19
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The Health Emergency That’s Coming to West Louisville
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by Nydia Han and Heather Grubola

Philadelphia’s coronavirus numbers show stark racial and income disparities
by Yun Choi

Many cities around the globe saw cleaner air after being shut down for COVID-19. But not Chicago.
by Michael Hawthorne

Pollution rollbacks show a ‘callous disregard’ for communities hard hit by COVID-19
by Justine Calma

COVID-19 Is Not a Reasonable Excuse for Continued Pollution
by Janet McCabe

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How Trump’s EPA Is Making Covid-19 More Deadly
by Michael R. Bloomberg and Gina McCarthy

Dirty air, weak enforcement hurt Arizona during COVID-19
by Sandy Bahr

15 thoughts on “Mental Pandemic and Ideological Lockdown

  1. Just tangential questions from a healthy old person. In Sweden, where I live, and apparently also in New York City /(if I correctly understood the news reports), the old people in institutions have died disproportionately via exposure to the current virus. We have warehoused old people. Why? One reason: no direct family support. Why the latter? Are we living too long? Difficult question: Are some of us living too long?

    • I didn’t recall you were in Sweden. What do you think of people outside of Sweden constantly comparing to Sweden, holding up Sweden as the exemplar of COVID-19 response?

      As far as I’m concerned, Sweden seems like a fine place to live. And for the kind of society, I wouldn’t say they were wrong for taking their approach with fewer government restrictions. But I can’t see Americans embracing Swedish culture, lifestyle, government, and economics. I just don’t know how it applies for anywhere else, especially with the highest rate of people living alone in the world. Still, I’m glad the Swedish went their own route, even if only as an experiment. We should all strive to have healthier social democracies where we have more options and more capacity to deal well with major crises, no matter what one thinks of this particular crisis.

      About your questions, the elderly crowded in long-term care centers involves a number of factors. First off, those environments are unusual and artificial. Such places were less common in the past. It’s a relatively new social practice to warehouse old people similarly to how we warehouse criminals and the insane. Any place where people are crowded together and forced to eat an unhealthy standard American diet (SAD) will see higher mortality rates from all kinds of diseases without any intervention from a pandemic. Texas prisons, for example, have also been hit hard with COVID-19, despite prison populations being younger.

      To connect this to what I wrote in the above post, I’m sort of on the side of those like Ivor Cummins who would say COVID-19 is not a pandemic as initially feared, in the sense that it was a socially constructed crisis but nonetheless a very real crisis (not unlike how race is socially constructed and yet leads to real world consequences of racial minorities having higher rates of disease and death, not to mention much else such as police brutality and incarceration). This is what motivated this post, a desire to counter those who would be too dismissive in not appreciating how hard this disease is hitting many populations.

      It may only seem like the common flu to wealthier whites who are healthy and have access to good healthcare, but other places have seen more deaths from COVID-19 in a couple of months than from the common flu all last year. It’s not only the old either, as about half of the dead have not been elderly. On average, COVID-19 takes off more than a decade from one’s life, which means for the younger victims they died decades earlier than they otherwise would have. That is no minor loss. The family and friends of the dead wouldn’t mind having their loved ones around for longer, be it a few more years or a few more decades.

      Here is what some consider a key point, the crux of this particular debate. If not for generations of a public health crisis from chronic diseases of civilization, primarily metabolic syndrome, it is highly doubtful this novel coronavirus would ever have spread like it did. The sad fact, though, is a pandemic like this was inevitable and almost certain there will be worse to come, in particular if public health further declines as it likely will as seen with countries like the United States that have dropping longevity. I’m not sure who is to decide what is living too long, as right now the United States has decreasing longevity, one of the many differences in comparing the United States to Sweden and the rest of the Western world.

      I don’t think we are living too long. Longevity has been fairly stable in a certain sense over millennia. The agricultural revolution shortened longevity to a great degree. And we are only now getting back to the longevity seen with pre-agricultural people. The main difference for hunter-gatherers is their higher infant and child mortality from infectious diseases, although many of those infectious diseases originate from agricultural societies. Anyway, if you look at hunter-gatherers who survive into adulthood, their longevity is no less than our own. A similar pattern is seen with the Blue Zones, but there are some problems with that research. Living into one’s eighties seems to be a fairly typical lifespan for humans.

      • I don’t have the Swedish language (not needed here because so much excellent English is spoken) so I don’t have direct access to the news, although there is one good English language online source. I don’t think Sweden has a wonderful answer, but it is in the nature of Swedes to remain calm and to cooperate with the authorities, as long as they don’t become oppressive, which they haven’t. The ‘authorities’ represent the people, in general, and the ethnic Swedes, especially the older ones, are strong on ‘solidarity.’ I feel reasonably solid in saying these things because I am describing my wife, to a limited degree, and she is all Swede. The ‘authorities’ are not necessarily at the national level. There are 23 Counties (or the equivalent) and each has its own responsibilities in serving and supporting the public. There are daily broadcasts at from the national level providing all the latest information about the progress of the disease and our advancing knowledge of its nature. Advice is given regarding use of public transport and social distancing, with guidelines. Currently there is a strong effort to identify those who have or have had the infection, with or without symptoms, but it is off to a shaky start, The goal is to test a large number of people ,chosen in a manner I didn’t catch. There are other things to say, but I think, in general, Sweden is struggling along with all other countries,trying to do the best they can with incomplete and imperfect info.

        • That sounds about like I’d expect. I don’t get the sense that any of the Nordic countries have large, centralized governments. I know, for example, that in the Finnish school system teachers at the local level have far more power and authority than do teachers in the United States. A strong culture of trust in a well tax-funded social democracy doesn’t automatically equate to rigid and hierarchical authoritarianism, as Anglo-American right-wingers seem to assume.

          An interesting comparison might be to compare Sweden with Italy and Spain, two countries that also have significant local governance. Then again, in response to public health crises, most of the policies in the United States also from the local level. Yet all these countries had various responses and results. I’m not sure why the libertarian-leaning types believe that even more localization in terms of giving more freedom and power to the private sector (e.g., corporations) will lead to better results.

          By the way, I’ve heard there have also been disparities in Swedish COVID-19 deaths. Some of those disparities supposedly follow along the lines of minority and disadvantaged populations. There are articles that report on the data about that, but I haven’t looked into it. One of the points, as I recall, was that a less strict approach to public health policy about pandemic did result in greater deaths in those other populations. I don’t know anything about the details to understand what might’ve been the precise causes. Poverty? Concentrated inner cities? Multigenerational households?

          • The Swedish central government admits serious errors were made (I don’t know who ‘made’ them) in the assignment of certain staff to senior housing, where a disproportionate number of old people died. My memory is not too good on this one, but I have the impression the staff were new Swedes or legal residents who were from poor countries (Somalia is a good bet) who were more vulnerable to the virus due to dark skin (vitamin D deficiency) living conditions, as you suggest, and all the factors associated with poverty and social displacement. Also, as you suggest, these folks weren’t raised in the Swedish ethic as I depicted in the previous response. There are ghettos (my word and impression) on the outskirts of the major cities where some government critics assert there are ‘no’go’ zones–where local rules, including Sharia Law, are followed rather than Swedish law. I don’t know the magnitude of this parallel ‘society.’ You might want to look into this: https://clarionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Muslim-Brotherhood-Sweden-Magnus-Norrell.pdf

          • There are always many factors. Skin color and vitamin D is an obvious thing to consider. Another thing is that European countries in general, maybe or maybe not including Sweden, have higher rates of immigrant populations living in segregated neighborhoods. That isn’t typically seen in the United States these days where segregation is less about immigrant status and more about skin color.

            Ethnic enclaves based on immigrant populations used to be more common in the United States and indeed ethnic enclaves by definition maintain their own separate cultures. Since the world war era, the United States has implemented strong policies that promote and sometimes enforce assimilation. American ethnic communities were sometimes violently attacked earlier last century and that is how German-American culture was almost entirely wiped out.

            Assimilationist policies is one explanation for why the United States has had less recent terrorism from immigrant populations. If you go back to the early 1900s, terrorism from immigrants was a major fear in this country. The public school system here was created largely as assimilationist projects, specifically combined with English-only laws. This is why the KKK was one of the biggest supporters of public education.

            Assimilated populations would allow for different kinds of public policies during a pandemic. It would be interesting to look at the COVID-19 rates in various assimilated and unassimilated immigrant populations across multiple Western countries. Maybe New York City was hit so hard partly because it has not only population density but some of the least assimilated immigrant populations in the United States.

            Still, I suspect the most basic issue simply comes down to poverty and inequality. Such things as ethnic enclaves, immigrant ghettos, minority communities, etc are often proxies for economic problems. It’s not only ethnic or racial segregation in housing but also in economic in terms of employment, job training, opportunities, resources, loans, etc. These kinds of systemic biases are carried over from generations or even centuries of prejudice and oppression.

            It is wholly unsurprising to see the poor, minorities in particular, dying more from COVID-19. The poor and minorities die more from everything: metabolic diseases, malnutrition, pollution-related diseases, heavy metal toxicity, police brutality, violent crime, etc. Poverty and oppression generally isn’t good for one’s health and longevity.

    • With COVID-19, I must admit that I feel like I’m not part of the debate most people are having. In fact, the public debate going on, in the corporate media and social media alike, seems like a meaningless conflict of views to me or at least a less than helpful ideological contest. To get beyond the ideological knee-jerk reactions, we need to focus on the details. Generalizing about all populations as if they’re the same is simply false.

      There really is a pandemic going on, even if it is mainly limited to specific vulnerable populations. But the point is those vulnerable populations are not small and insignificant. It’s not only metabolic diseases that are comorbidities for those most likely to die include wide swaths of the population: the elderly, the poor, minorities, those living in polluted areas, those lacking access to healthcare, multigenerational households, residents in crowded urban areas, etc. These are also the very same people forced to work in service jobs that expose them to infection.

      For those of us who feel safe, we should not be dismissive of those populations our society regularly sacrifices with little thought. This public health crisis, once again, forces us to face the stark reality of privilege and oppression. Wealthy whites get to be part of a public debate and get heard in the corporate media, but those who are most likely to die continue to be excluded and silenced. Whites in general, even those who are only middle class, have much lower rates of the commorbidities caused by diet, pollution, stress, etc. It’s a privilege to be able to dismiss the harm of COVID-19 or spread conspiracy theories as if the pandemic is not real.

      Even the question about living too long gets pulled into this disconnection between populations. For economically well-off whites, from upper working class to to upper class, as long as one isn’t old COVID-19 is not a major concern. But if we look at other populations such as minorities and poor whites, a much larger number of the infections and deaths are found outside of elderly. These disadvantaged people have never had the problem of being given the opportunity of living too long. The very question of whether we are living too long is a concern of privilege.

      I say that as someone who is part of that privileged population, a white person who is financially secure with a great job and healthcare insurance. Also, I live in a healthy community with low rates of pollution, social stress, police brutality, etc. Instead of being trapped in a food desert, I have access to a farmers’ market and make enough money to be able to buy healthy food available to me.

      Here we are, you and I, along with others like Cummins and Pezeshki — all of us privileged white Westerners who are healthy and have little personal concern. We can debate COVID-19 and public policies as if they are abstractions. Even with the economic problems, we aren’t among the demographics who will feel the worst consequences. It’s the poor and minorities who most need the protection of lockdowns, but it’s also the poor and minorities who will suffer the most from the economic harm of lockdowns.

      On the other hand, I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s concerns, not even that of privileged white Westerners. We live in a shitty society. Lockdown or no, most of us feel powerless in societies ruled by plutocrats, corporatocrats, and inverted totalitarians. As Keith Payne shows in The Broken Ladder, a high inequality society massively sucks for everyone involved, even the rich. This is more of a problem for the United States, of course. I can’t speak to where you’re living in Sweden or where Cummins is living in Ireland. Instead of shutting down debate, I want to broaden it to include more voices, instead of how people get trapped in their demographic and ideological media echo chambers.

      We need to look to those who live in other communities, those who experience is entirely different than our own. That is always a challenge but a necessary challenge if we are to survive long term as a civilization during this coming period of increasing global crises. This COVID-19 pandemic is just a shot across the bow. We better be prepared for the worst to come. We have to learn to think about everyone in our society, not only those who are like us. As earthlings, we are literally all in this together.

  2. Benjamin, what I am missing is some science. More then 25 scientific papers tell us that the “corona disease” is not worse than the seasonal flu: https://swprs.org/studies-on-covid-19-lethality/
    Other interesting readings: Facts about Covid-19 https://swprs.org/a-swiss-doctor-on-covid-19/

    Also there is the exosomes theory, in contrast to the virus theory: https://youtu.be/Ac2MAAlzxEs
    As exosomes are not contagious, a lockdown does not seem to make sense at all!

    Dr. ANDREW KAUFMAN ~ “A DOCTOR SPEAKS OUT: Secrets, Lies, Fake News & Coronavirus” [Age Of Truth TV]:

    • I might agree that you’re missing some science. That is part of the point. The debate is so narrow that most of us, yourself included, are trapped in our respective demographic and ideological bubbles. The science becomes secondary because it is through our personal reality tunnel that we filter the evidence that makes sense to us.

      There is all kinds of data out there with diverse results. Depending on which evidence you pick and choose, you can come to different conclusions. I could argue with you such as that the exosomes theory of SARS-CoV-2 is plain unscientific (http://www.integralworld.net/visser166.html), but there is no point as we’d still end up disagreeing. I’d rather avoid pointless argument and, indeed, I do consider it pointless as it can’t lead anywhere positive. All it can do is create a sense of conflict and frustration.

      The bigger point, to my mind, is how narrow and insular most public debate has become. Everyone I mentioned in this post, everyone who is commenting here, myself included, are relatively comfortable and safe white Westerners. Even looking at the same exact set of data and evidence, people from entirely different demographic experience could be having an entirely different kind of debate. I want to know about those other debates, those other perspectives. That is to say I don’t want to be trapped in an echo chamber where I hear repeated back to me what I already agree with.

      It’s not just any given position taken, not just any particular debate. It’s how the entire situation is framed by those who are least affected by the worst outcomes. Sure, the poor and minorities are more likely to die from COVID-19, but it’s not limited to that, even if ignoring those who would deny novel coronavirus exists. Also, the issue of government policies are having their most negative impact on the poor and minorities. Lockdown and other policies should be decided by local populations who are most affected by them, both in terms of public health and economics.

      So, why aren’t we listening to what the poor and minorities have to say about the situation? Why are they being silenced and excluded as they are in almost every other public debate in the Western world? The United States is an immensely diverse country. Even most whites aren’t middle to upper class. So, why are these well-off whites allowed to dominate public and political debate about issues that affect them less than the rest of the population?

      You and I, as with Cummins and Pezeshki, probably agree about an anti-authoritarian attitude in general. None of us are for big government and are concerned about unjustfied power being abused and leading to corruption. Yet this issue is an even greater concern for minorities and for those with far less wealth and power than we have. I live in a decent community with a decent job. Even as working class, I’m better off than most Americans and certainly far better off than most people in the world.

      Everyone’s opinion matters, including yours. I’m not here to silence anyone, even if I strongly disagree with someone and think they’re misguided, a position I do take with those who would dismiss COVID-19 as a pandemic. Nonetheless, maybe my opinion on the matter is not so relevant. I’d like to hear what the most harmed have to say. Plenty of poor whites and minorities have been following such debates, have been looking at the evidence. What conclusions have they come to? What do they think is best for themselves, for their families, and for their communities?

      Maybe there is no one right answer. Different people in different places would have different needs, concerns, and perspectives. I have no desire to impose my views upon them, even if I thought they were wrong. I’m for social democracy with heavy emphasis on the democratic part. We should have more local self-governance, not less. For some populations, that might mean more restrictions. And for others, no restrictions at all. Let us have open public debate where everyone can be heard and can influence local policy that affects their lives.

      • Benjamin,
        “Depending on which evidence you pick and choose, you can come to different conclusions”
        This is completely false. Science is about theories and about statistics. When more than 25 scientific papers tell that the actual disease is statistically the same as the seasonal flu, what is your conclusion?
        There are no scientific papers with other statistics!! Otherwise, please show me.

        I think science is the best we have. As I mentioned the exosomes theory, you mentioned psychiatrist Visser who said: “given the fact that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fully sequenced last January”. Scientists found RNA, and some people called it a virus! In science there are no facts. Viruses do not exist except in some books, according to statistics. Exosomes have more chance to be real. I cannot understand that that is so difficult to understand. Please ask someone from the field about viruses and then be back!
        Exosomes are reactions from our body and are ways of our body to get rid of toxic. There is no virus, lockdown is foolish, Bill Gates wants to sell 14 billion vaccines a year, each $ 100, according to his own web site. Now the world is awakening. Are you?

        • Obviously, it’s true. There are thousands upon thousands of experts in healthcare, public health policy, virology, etc. This includes a wide variety of leading experts in their fields. The amount of data and other evidence they draw upon is immense. Yet there is a wide variety of scientific assessment of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.

          You are picking the papers that fit your conclusion while ignoring all of the papers that contradict it. That is because you believe there is a conspiracy and, in your belief, only some sources can be trusted. But I’m not so confident in dismissing the wide variety of evidence that is amassed. I’ve been in these kinds of debates before. Citing evidence never leads anywhere other than to frustration.

          I’m not going to debate against conspiracy theory. I’m just not. You may think that is unfair, disrespectful, cowardly, or whatever. You are free to have your opinion about this topic and about the response of others to your opinion. If you think I’m a clueless ignoramus, you are free to do so. I just don’t see any benefit, in this instance, to engaging within a frame of conspiracy theory.

          That said, I understand and sympathize with your lack of trust. That is a key point of this post, the loss of public trust. Conspiracy theories wouldn’t proliferate if this were not the case.

    • I was thinking about this on a personal level. Even though I’m working class, I have a unionized government job and I live in a nice middle class college town in mostly rural Iowa surrounded by farmland. The economy is stable here and, even during ‘lockdown’, most of the Iowa economy is food-related and so continued to operate. I continued to work the entire time, as did everyone I personally know.

      Besides, the infection and death rates here have been mild as compared to the major urban centers on the coasts. The hardest hit populations are both physically and psychologically distant from here. The threat of infection and death along with the potential economic problems from lockdown are not overly felt on the personal level. The public debates going on are largely abstract. My life has mostly gone on as normal, other than having some more time off. There will unlikely be any permanent harm to me, either about health or economics. Farm states have stable economies, no matter what is going on in the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

      That is true of many other people elsewhere, such as for professionals living in nice suburban communities who can work from home or even some of the prominent doctors on social media who run concierge services for those who can afford it. These are all people who will do fine in the coming months and years. When I listen to those like me, other economically comfortable and physically safe white Westerners, argue about lockdowns or whatever, it doesn’t have any real urgency. So, the arguments devolve into ideological conflicts and sometimes partisan posturing. This is how wearing masks or not has become a symbol to signal one’s sociopolitical group identity.

  3. I added many links to the end of the post.

    They are mostly related to demographic inequities involving economic class and poverty along with race, ethnicity, segregation, and pollution. Poor Americans are twice as likely to die from COVID-19. And American minorities are somewhere between two and seven times more likely. The chances of death are even higher in developing countries.

    That is to say for these people, the pandemic is visceral reality that is killing people all around them. They are mostly not involved in debates because these people are simply struggling to get by. What for other is an ideological battle, political contest, or social identity positioning is for them their everyday lived reality.

    • By the way, anyone who follows this blog shouldn’t be surprised by this post. It’s simply a variation on a theme. The basic message has been repeated in probably hundreds of posts. It used to be a central focus of the blog, although maybe recently we’ve pulled back from it a bit in trying to find another approach of understanding.

      We have this hyper-sensitivity to privilege, prejudice, and oppression. But also we have a keen interest in how metaphorical and narrative frames, ideological worldviews and memetic mind viruses rule our society in ways that we are typically oblivious. The debate taken at face value, to be honest, bores us as it feels like something we’ve already seen so many times before.

      As usual, the apparent debate is never the real debate. We are quick to sense what is underlying. Even when we’re not sure what is being left out of the frame, we get a sense of irritation at what is left unsaid or, in this case, who is kept silent. That irritation can sometimes lead to frustration, something we were seeking to avoid in this situation. We hope we succeeded to some degree.

      We’re trying to get better at conveying this message without furthering antagonism and polarization. We went to great effort in this post and the comments here to not attack anyone as individuals. We really do have great respect for Cummins, along with Pezeshki and Saladino. But we also feel the need to get at something deeper, more important.

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