COVID-19 Lessons

[Last updated June 27, 2021 5:48 AM (MDT)]

A few things that need to be updated here:

  1. Many cycles of lockdown, mask requirements, etc. since I wrote this

  2. Need to examine initial death estimates vs reality. Some were not off by as much as I had initially thought

  3. Detail the .5 micron/fomite/aerosol issues that proved crucial

  4. Variants and their impact along with vaccines

  5. Lab leak hypothesis vs. zoonosis - where are the intermediate animal carriers?

[Initial thoughts in March-April 2020 - needs to be updated]

We’ve been subject to many claimed threats to human existence. Fun fact: none of them, to date, have proven true. The apocalypse is always close at hand, but never arrives.

SARS-CoV-2 is the 2nd virus to mobilize the planet to action, the first being the 1918 ‘Spanish’ Flu pandemic. As cases begin to arrive on your shore, the fear becomes palpable. You act. An invisible virus has achieved short-term reductions in CO$_2$ emissions that PR campaigns with scowling children could only dream of. At the same time, it has proven how futile such campaigns are, given our utter reliance on fossil fuels, even as fuel providers have taken enormous hits. In spite of all the solar and wind investments in the last 20 years, shutting down half the world has not yet been detected in CO$_2$ levels.

We rightly perceive that the climate has been changing for eons, moving as it wills. Our actions have such insignificant effects on it. This year’s drastic reductions will have zero long-term effects on the global climate. But lockdowns and social distancing have brought both COVID-19 and influenza to their knees. The results are immediate and measurable. Less people get sick or die. Right now, not by the end of the century.

Even those who disagree with the response understand they are choosing between lower or higher death rates, between less over time or more now. We all make the same choices with other threats. We got rid of lead in paint and gasolines. We banned chlorofluorocarbons. We mandated seat belts. Cigarette sales are down 2/3 from their peak. When the threat is perceived as real, we collectively act. We always have. It’s how we’re wired.

So when we don’t act, either our perception is off or the problem isn’t actually real to us. Scare tactics won’t change that. They will rightly be perceived as chicken little warnings. Even predictive models won’t help. With COVID-19 they gave us curved graphs, paths to choose from. We generally chose the flatter curve. Yet all the models greatly exaggerated the death tolls. They either overestimated the threat or underestimated our response, or both. Even when modeling with lockdowns and distancing they overestimated fatalities. This is with a very tangible, short-term actual threat to life. We have been taught another lesson in the limits of modeling.

Soon we will be removing lockdowns and travel restrictions. Life will slowly crawl back to something approaching normal, especially after a vaccine arrives. The news media headline writers will struggle to find something new to scare us into paying attention. The 2020 election in the U.S. will be first, but then what? Most people will look at climate change modeling with new eyes, and will rightly give it the attention it deserves, which is very little. Sure, sustainable energy is great, and the more we move in that direction the better. But existential crises based on 100-year models are difficult to sustain, especially after a real crisis. And compared to epidemiological models, climate models are magnitudes of order more complicated. Why should long-range, extremely complex climate models be given more credence than short-term, less complex epidemiological models? Why should we expect anything less than even larger margins of error?

Personally, I went through an existential crisis based on climate change fears last year, then slowly recovered. I have since come to realize that there are many problems in and around the science of climate change. When combining model issues with journal publishing pressures and issues, one could rightly begin dismissing most modern peer-reviewed science! The appropriate response to most science headlines is probably “Oh, well that’s interesting.” Anything more is unwise and unjustified. One certainly should not take it as anything more than an indication in the direction of possible truth. This may apply to the climate more than any other area. Coral reefs, sea levels, extinction threats and temperatures are all subject to these same publishing pressures and replication problems.