Nnewsletter #05: Badgers, Bats, and Broadcom
We're Moving to Madison! || Blaming Animals or Foreigners for COVID lets the Real Culprits Off || "Reopening" Fantasies are a Murder-Suicide Pact || COVID is Probably More Prevalent than Official Numbers, but that Doesn't Mean we're Approaching General Immunity || Broadcom Insists Coders Can't Work from Home
Friends, Family, Fellow-humans,
I don't want to start this post like every company that's ever vacuumed up your email address: "Dear Valued Customer: In These Uncertain Times, we're thinking of you..." so I'll start with this wry, self-referential joke about not doing that.
Of course, I truly am thinking of you all, and as more than just a valued customer too! I know the likelihood that COVID, job losses, or other upheaval has touched you and your loved ones grows with every passing day. If there's anything I can do from afar to help – let me know. If you're fortunate enough to retain your health and income, please continue to keep your distance from others, and consider supporting your local food bank or strike fund, or telling your congresscritters that American workers need more relief than irresponsible companies who should have been saving for a rainy day. Think universal basic income, and a rent moratorium.
I have some links to my writing and life updates below, but first, some dismal science (and I don't mean economics).
We May Never Know How Many People COVID Killed
It's long been pretty clear that we're under-counting both COVID cases and COVID fatalities. This is a natural result of the way we count them: if a "COVID case" requires a positive diagnosis, there will be some number of people who recovered — or died – without ever being tested. This is true everywhere, but especially in places like the US where testing has struggled to keep up with outbreaks.
The NY Times did a sorely-needed investigation of how severely different places are under-counting COVID fatalities. Rather than counting just "people who died in a hospital affter being diagnosed with COVID," the Times looked at total mortality in several different cities and countries, asking "how many more people are dying during the pandemic than otherwise would." In the handful of countries and cities they looked at, they found at least 28,000 deaths that don't show in the official total. In New York City alone, where mortality has quadrupled over historical averages, the authors estimate 4,000 COVID deaths have gone uncounted.
Of course, not every one of these is a COVID death. This excess mortality also counts anyone who died because their hospital was overrun with COVID patients, for instance. [Those may be more than counterbalanced, however, by the numer of gun, pollution, and traffic deaths that aren't happening thanks to shutdowns.] But it's a good indication that the toll of this pandemic is worse than we think, and much moreso in places – again, like the US – that are undercounting cases. Remember this when the same leaders who failed on testing this spring trumpet this fall how "only" a few thousand, or a few hundred thousand people died. The real toll is probably far larger.
Separate from the question of deaths is the question of "seroprevalence." You may have seen by now some news of "serological" studies claiming that huge numbes of people – up to 100 times more than the official numbers – seem to have had COVID. There have been some small-scale studies in places like Lombardy, Germany, and Colorado's western slope, and now two headline-grabbing studies in California. Such studies should be taken with a pile of salt the size of Everest.
WIRED had a good breakdown of some problems particular to the California studies, and epidemiologists on Twitter have been criticizing their methodology (which I'm not qualified to pass judgement on) and their refusal to correct errors while continuing to publish hyped-up press releases (which I am qualified to judge: this is bad science and bad science communication). Broadly, serological studies face a really tough problem: when only a few percent of the population has had COVID, it's really, really hard to distinguish "vastly more people had COVID than we thought" from "we got a few more false positives than we expected."
Whats more, immunity is complex, so even having the antibodies a serological test measures doesn't mean you're immune.
This matters, because, perversely, it would be great news if there were 100x more COVID cases than we thought. It would mean the disease was (about) 100x less deadly, and would mean we're much closer to being able to return to the vastly-changed-but-closer-to-"normal" life that we'll have after the pandemic. [Even if post-COVID life will be anything but normal]. So there are lots of scientists – and policymakers – out there who would dearly love to believe that instead of this outbreak being 1% over, it was 5% over, or 10% over. But we don't have that yet.
And unfortunately, these studies are probably influencing decisions to lift important restrictions before it's safe to do so. More on that below, but first, what have I been writing?
I wrote for Tenderly Magazine about what blaming "exotic" animals or "exotic" customs for the pandemic accomplishes: chiefly, setting anti-racists and animal rights advocates against each other, and protecting the plutocrats and plunderers who set the stage for this pandemic (and then sold their stock at a profit while reassuring people everything was fine). And I suggest how the causes of anti-racism and animal liberation can work together. I hope you give it a read!
Smithfield Foods Makes My Point for Me
In the Tenderly story, I write about how the idea that we can sacrifice non-human lives for profit easily extends to sacrificing human lives for profit, especially when racism or other ideologies mark out certain groups as less than human. From the beginning, racism was about likening some people too animals, and thereby marking them for violence – this is still true today. The day my story was published, Smithfield foods tried to blame a COVID outbreak at one of its meatpacking plants on “Living circumstances in certain cultures [being] different than they are with your traditional American family,” an astoundingly racist statement that glosses over the fact that cramped living conditions are a product of the economic deprivation on which Smithfield built its empire. Smithfield's statement echoes attacks on racialized communities everywhere, accusing poor people of living "packed together like cattle" as if either farm animals or ghettoized immigrants choose to live in unsafe conditions. Our society's willingness to sacrifice others' lives for pleasure and profit extends not only to meat animals and meat workers. Migrant farm-workers, grocery and delivery workers, and medical workers are all put in harms way for our comfort, while we smile and thank them as heroes. I'd hazard a guess that medical workers don't want a ticker tape parade (and the resulting spike in cases) when this is "all over." They want PPE and hazard pay now.
Avi knows staying home and sleeping keeps everyone safe!
Laboratories of What Now?
There's an old trope that American states are the "laboratories of democracy," 50 different places to see what works and what doesn't. So I wasn't surprised when I interviewed epidemiologist Laura Kahn back in March that she expected state and local leaders to take the lead on COVID response – especially with the federal response so much more focused on the stock market and a certain someone's re-election chances. What I didn't expect was the Feds would be so obstructionist – seizing hospital-bound shipments of masks and face shields and redistributing them to political allies.
Governors have started conducting their own back-channel diplomacy – from loading the New England Patriots team plane with masks from China to Maryland's first Korean-American first lady securing a half-million test kits for her state from South Korea – just to save their populace.
In the meantime, Republican leaders push economic activity over their citizens' lives – a false choice, as my friend Vincent Gabrielle writes in Knox News, since experts agree that healthy economies require, you know, people not dying. Gaggles of astroturfed protesters demand that low-wage workers risk their lives to give them a haircut while Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick says "There are more important things than living" (while refusing to risk his own life) and states like Georgia move to lift stay-at-home orders, forcing people who could otherwise keep themselves and their communities safe by collecting unemployment to choose between the risk of death and the certainty of destitution.
Oh, and on the federal level, racism is letting Trump pretend that immigration restrictions have anything to do with COVID, while the US has been exporting the disease to other countries through deportations and seizing shipments of needed medical equipment.
If you live on the blue line, we will be driving past you this August
They moved tax day, but April 15 was still my deadline for committing to a PhD program. So I'm pleased to announce that I'll be starting eighteenth (?) grade at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall, studying for an MA and then a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology! I'll spend the time studying how the social sciences – sociology, economics, psychology – use and abuse data and ideas from genetics and its chic 21st-century cousin, genomics. So this summer, my partner and I will be moving west, and slightly north, to Madison. If you've an inclination towards snail-mail or in-person visits (once it's safe again) let me know, and I'll let you know our new address once we know! Wisconsin has its own "reopen" death cult activity – in addition to protests in the capital, Republicans there insisted on holding in-person elections this month, which we now know infected several people with COVID and put many more at risk. Worse, they're now suing to re-open the state (rather than doing anything to help people and small businesses stay safe and distant). Even if this is a strong movement, though, its a minority, and I hope we'll be able to do something to help rebuild community and build solidarity there.
Back in Colorado, my brother, who works as a code jockey for one of Broadcom's subsidiaries, got a strange announcement last week: because Broadcom, which makes computer chips, is designated an "essential business," it's requiring all workers – even those like my brother who can work entirely from home and aren't involved in manufacturing at all – to come into the office for one week out of every four, allegedly to make things "fair" for the laboratory and fabrication workers who must come in every day. If I were a lab/fab tech, I don't think I'd see it as "fair" if I needed a ventilator, but couldn't get it because one of the most highly-compensated CEOs in the country decided programmers can't work from home. Just another example of the only-in-America twisted idea that dangerous work is liberating and good.
Keep home, keep safe, keep fighting for a better world,
This is the Nnewsletter (That's two N's, two T's, like my name) an irregular update on Bennett McIntosh's life and writing. Forwarded this message or viewing it online? Subscribe or edit your subscription here Website | Twitter | Contact Me | Unsubscribe