October 13, 2021

The Great Divide; it keeps getting wider… and every day is happy to provide examples to suit whatever argument you wish to agree with. If we were ever all together in the same boat, drifting in the same direction… well, that’s over. The river forked, and some went this way and others went that way. Depends who you ask. And yes, geologists, sit down… I know, rivers don’t do that… but you know what I’m trying to say… just trying to symbolize the ever-increasing gap in people’s opinions.

Like… It’s almost over! The U.S. border will be open soon! The Canucks are playing their first regular season game in over 18 months in front of a sell-out crowd!

Or… todays Covid deaths… 38 in Alberta and 11 in Saskatchewan… are more than we’ve seen since January. There are so many critically-ill patients in Saskatchewan that they’ll be sending them to Ontario hospitals. Yeah, here we go again.

OK, so what’s the deal? Where the hell exactly are we? Is it heading towards being over? Is it heading for a fifth wave? Will it ever end? We had such High Hopes.

Pink Floyd has a song called High Hopes… from their 1994 album “The Division Bell.”
The song contains lyrics like “The grass was greener” and “The light was brighter” and “The taste was sweeter”. How things were. And where we hope we’re once again headed… soon.

An interesting thing about that song… the eponymous (“relating to the person or thing for which something is named”) Division Bell itself plays a prominent role. You can hear it on every 4th beat of most of the song. One-two-three-DING one-two-three-DING… and I don’t mean some little “next, please” chime or a little sleigh bell… I mean an actual gigantic bell, the sort you see in a belltower of a mediaeval church. The song starts with lots of bells, but then just settles on this one… keeping that 4th beat. Then comes the wall of sound… the drums, the bass, the guitars, the keyboards, David Gilmour’s voice… but, by the end of the song, all of that has faded away and we’re left with nothing but… yes, you guessed it. When I purchased tickets for that concert, I was hoping they’d have an actual bell on stage.

Sidenote… I stood in line all night for tickets to that concert… and bought the maximum 6 tickets when it was finally my turn. I think 4 of the 5 friends who came to that show with me back in 1994 might be reading this.

Anyway, I was not disappointed. Prominently occupying the back of center-stage was a gigantic bell, and it well-served its purpose for the final song of the night; there was a solitary percussionist whose only job was to hammer it every 4 beats.

The persistence of it… they symbolism isn’t difficult to grasp. It’s not subtle… it hits you like… well, like being clanged by a bell-hammer every four beats: It doesn’t matter what’s happening now; it’s temporary. It’ll fade. But what came before and what’ll come again; that’s permanence. You can almost hear the bell ringing from a thousand years ago and ringing a thousand years into the future. But here we are for the moment and, as per above, where are we?

Before we answer that, it’s worth answering “Where should we be?” All things being equal, this pandemic should be over.

Let’s remind ourselves about R-naught (“Rø”)… a number which, at the start of this pandemic meant everything. Rø measures the “spreadability” of a disease by calculating how many people, on average, an infected person is themselves infecting. An Rø of less than one means the disease is on its way out. An Rø of greater than one means it’ll continue spreading.

The original C19 had an Rø of between 1.4 and 3.9. The Alpha variant doubled that. And then the Delta variant came along and doubled it again, to somewhere between 5 and 9. For comparison, a seasonal flu has an Rø of 0.9 to 2.1. Measles has an Rø of 12 to 18. We are closer to measles territory than a conventional flu.

If we had vaccines and treatments and no variants, this might all be over. There is a direct correlation with respect to herd immunity and Rø… and it’s exactly what you’d expect; the more infectious the disease, the more people need to be immune to it to prevent it from spreading. The originally-thought herd immunity level for beating this thing was around 70%, and with an Rø of 3, that’s about right. But now, unfortunately, it’s far from being the case. With the Delta variant, we need to be approaching 90%.

Originally, good hand washing and masks and social distancing and restrictions were thought to be the key… and they were. Without vaccines, all of those things help tremendously in stopping the spread, effectively bashing down the Rø because they prevent the virus from spreading unchecked. The world provided some examples as to what happens when you let that native Rø run its course, and it wasn’t pretty.

So… instead of a quick end, what we got is a far more contagious variant… and far more vaccine hesitancy/denial/insanity than anyone could’ve predicted. Those two things very-effectively have served to extend this… and, in essence, convert it from a pandemic to what’ll ultimately be an endemic disease that’ll be with us forever.

OR…

Well, here’s a funny thing. Much like a broken clock is right twice a day, when the fanatical anti-vaxxers scream that the scientists don’t understand this thing at all, there’s one particular aspect where they’re right… and it has to do with the mysterious 2-month cycle of Covid-19. One example of nailing the broken clock is this:

It seems, with some regularity, that when there’s a surge in cases, they seem to plateau after about two months and then drop off. Indeed, look at the numbers and pretty pictures and they all tell the same story. There’s a definite plateau off of the two-month surge, and in the U.S., who started down the path before us, a notable decline in new cases… 35% since September 1st. Indeed, worldwide, cases have dropped 30% since late August and when cases drop, so do hospitalizations and ICU admissions and deaths. The surge in ICU cases and deaths in Alberta and Saskatchewan today are due to the new case surges of two weeks (and longer) ago… but today’s new-case numbers are all, at worst flat, and, at best, a lot lower (more than 50%) from the recent past. Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: in a month, things in those two provinces (and Canada in general) will be looking a lot better.

Why is this happening? Nobody is too sure, because all of the variables have been written out of the equation. It’s warm, it’s cold, masks on, masks off, social distancing, easing of restrictions, vaccines. Whereas all of those things are treated very differently around the world, there’s a very evident pattern: Generally speaking, cases rose from February to late April, fell until late June, rose to highs in late August and have been falling ever since. In Canada, we were a little late to the party, so add a month to all of that. But the pattern is there. And so, Canada numbers will continue to go down, the border will open and Canucks fans will flood to Seattle for games and we will all be back to normal.

No, not quite… but given vaccinations and the pattern above, there’s reason to be optimistic. Those two things imply that the worst is over. And yes, it could change again. Pick an as-of-yet unused Greek letter, attach “variant” to it, and a frightening Rø, and you can throw the optimism out the window. There’s the other broken clock. We simply don’t know what we don’t know… and that’s why the bell keeps ringing, and will do so till the end of time.

Like the song ends, and like we might all be feeling, drifting with the current, destination time and place unknown…

With friends surrounded
The dawn mist glowing
The water flowing
The endless river
Forever and ever

Ding… ding… ding…

October 13, 2021

October 5, 2021

Well… I guess it depends how you look at it.

A little over 20 years ago, a group of terrorists took over four planes with the intention of crashing them into buildings. Three of them succeeded. So… what was the death toll? If you count the total of passengers, crew and terrorists on the planes, they add up to 284. Is it fair to say the death toll of 9/11 was 284? Of course not. We also have to count all of those on the ground.

Do we count the hundreds that were killed instantly upon impact? Do we count those that were killed trying to escape their building but were caught when it collapsed? Do we count those that preferred to jump, and die on their own accord, with a final breath of fresh air instead of being burned alive? Do we count the hundreds of firemen who lost their lives trying to rescue all of the aforementioned people? The answer to all of that is agreed upon to be yes… and it adds up to just under 3,000.

But many of those people that survived that day succumbed to injuries later. Many rescue workers developed respiratory problems and cancer due to the toxicity of Ground Zero. And how many suicides emerged from the shattered lives of those left behind? Do we count those?

And, of course, 9/11 launched a war, one that lasted twenty years. Add all of those casualties – military, civilian, other… and now we’re well over 70,000. Did those terrorists kill over 70,000 people? I don’t know where you want to draw the line, but here’s a simple fact: Were it not for the terrorists, most of those 70,000 would be alive today.

Closer to home… when this pandemic began, the “it’s no big deal” crowd loved throwing out bullshit numbers like “Covid has only killed 0.0000234%” of the population. With a bit of time and science behind us, we can get a pretty accurate feel for where things are actually at… and where they’re going.

To begin with, like my 9/11 example above, there are complicated philosophical arguments that can be made as to what counts and what doesn’t. There are also abhorrent arguments that can be made like “old people were going to die anyway, so if it’s from Covid, it shouldn’t count.” Tell that to a 9/11 widow whose husband took his own life a year after the attacks because he just couldn’t handle it.

After all is said and done, there’s very little to counteract against the simplest measure of all; Excess Deaths. You can argue that someone with serious pre-existing medical conditions shouldn’t count. You can argue the someone who had mild Covid but died in a car accident on the way to the hospital shouldn’t count. You can argue that a family that died of hunger or misery or loneliness because their sole bread-winner died of Covid – shouldn’t count. There are plenty of arguments that can be made on both sides of those, but it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s excess deaths. If a certain population typically sees 1,000 people die during a certain period of time but now it’s 1,200, unless you have a very obvious explanation for those 200, if it’s been in the last 18 months, I’m going to assume it’s directly related to Covid.

Globally, the official death count is around 4.8M. That number is way off, and as per all of the above, you can argue what should count and what shouldn’t, but I can tell you this… the real number is around 16 million, with a 95% confidence interval of somewhere between 9.9M and 18.5M. And where exactly do I get this? Excess deaths, of course.

The issue with all of this is that the analysis of this data is only as good as the data itself. From a North American point of view, excess deaths seem to be about 20% above the official C19 numbers… and that’s if you believe the numbers, which generally, you should. There was a period of time when the Trump White House took control of the numbers and everything suddenly dropped. The issue these days is that many sources of data seem to have become less reliable. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, you can’t fudge death numbers. Those are publicly available and out of anyone’s hands to manipulate.

In other places though… China’s official death toll from C19 is… less than 5,000. As you may have noticed, China no longer cares what anyone thinks, nor do they even make an effort to hide behind plausible deniability. They will do and say whatever they want without feeling the need to answer to it, and there’s no better example than the recent hostage exchange. The two Michaels came this way, Meng went that way. Notwithstanding China has been saying for two years how these two are spies and they have evidence and here’s an 11-year sentence, etc… a few minutes after Meng was released, so were they. There was no re-trial. There was no “new evidence” to show their innocence. There wasn’t even a “it’ll take a couple of days to process their release.” Nothing… and to hell with the optics. Here are your prisoners; we’ll take ours. Think whatever you want. We don’t care.

China’s official Covid death toll probably undercounts reality by about 11,000%. Their true death toll is estimated to be between 210,000 and 1.5M. There are countless examples around the world where the official counts are way out of touch with reality… and what’s emerging out of the data is are things like dire humanitarian crises in many countries in Africa. The excess deaths are in many cases, like in China, thousands of percentage points higher than the official numbers. The same can be said about some countries in Latin America.

Anyway… that’s where we’re at, and it’s unfortunately far from over. Or is it? Is there a global light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel? Like all of the above, it very much depends how you look at it… but that’s a topic for another day.

October 5, 2021

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