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Though I am open about my faith and often welcome steps that allow faith to play a more visible role in society, I prefer to let faith be a personal matter and not a basis for government policies. Unfortunately, I fear that an abundance of faith, perhaps even blind faith, is behind many policies and plans being pursued by government leaders these days, especially when it comes to dealing with the novel Coronavirus.

Here in Wisconsin, we have a popular governor, Tony Evers, who is a man of great faith. His faith was on display in his recent announcement that Wisconsin’s “Safer-at-Home” lockdown policy would be extended for at least another month. In a touching and poignant expression of his faith, Governor Evers said:

“I want to be honest with you folks, things won’t get back to normal until there’s a vaccine and treatment for this disease and even then our new normal will not be the same as our old normal,” Evers said. “This will be a slow and gradual process.”

I fully support Governor Evers’ right to have faith that unpredictable future events may happen, even miraculous ones. I would love to have a successful cure and a safe, effective vaccine, preferably both. But my personal faith on this matter is not as strong as his.

This novel Coronavirus, which is closely related to the old-fashioned Coronaviruses that have been part of the viral group causing common colds for millennia, might be conquered in a year or two with a vaccine. If so, we’ll have yet another reason to shout hosanna (be sure to use a white Kleenex tissue instead of a handkerchief for that occasion)! But we can’t base that hope on a reliable prediction grounded on firm science, only our faith in what might happen, if we are very lucky.

Scientists have not been able to develop successful vaccines or cures for the common cold after all these decades of trying. Scientists have been working on a vaccine for HIV for almost 40 years. We are closer than ever and perhaps need to keep spending money based on the belief that a vaccine will solve that problem, and this could happen, but so far our faith has not been rewarded. Fortunately, scientists have had much more success in developing vaccines for influenza, which have been administered to people since the 1940s. The faith-promoting success stories from the battles that science has won in fighting influenza with vaccines may (and even better stories for polio and other diseases) be the source of Governor Evers’ deep faith that similar success might be seen with the novel Coronavirus and COVID-19. But just how successful have influenza vaccines been? There is too much misinformation about vaccines on the web (I am not an anti-vaxer and have stayed current on many vaccinations, even getting several vaccine shots while I was in China), so let’s turn to the US government’s CDC website, “Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work?“:

  • Flu vaccination can keep you from getting sick with flu.
    • Flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor’s visits each year. For example, during 2017-2018, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 6.2 million influenza illnesses, 3.2 million influenza-associated medical visits, 91,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 5,700 influenza-associated deaths.
    • During seasons when the flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent.

That’s wonderful news. The 2017-18 flu season was perhaps the biggest in the past decade, but thanks to vaccines, 5,700 lives were saved and over 6 million people were prevented from becoming ill. Wonderful! Sadly, skeptics (there’s always one in every crowd!) might try to cast doubt and create distraction at this point with cheap shots like, “Yeah, but how many people actually died from influenza that season? How many got ill anyway?” Fortunately, the CDC also has provided documentation on this so there’s no need to turn to negative fake-news sites.  On the CDC’s tersely titled page, “2017-2018 Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths and Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths Averted by Vaccination in the United States,” we find the facts:

CDC estimates that influenza was associated with 45 million illnesses, 21 million medical visits, 810,000 hospitalizations, and 61,000 deaths during the 2017–2018 influenza season. 

Wait, 61,000 died? Over ten times as many as the lives saved? And 45 million still became ill? OK, not everyone gets the flu shot, but a flu shot is no guarantee of success. Not even close. One problem is that there are many viruses and viruses mutate. A vaccination based on one virus might not work on another strain. The CDC makes this point in its assessment of vaccine efficacy against influenza:

During seasons when the flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent.

In other words, under favorable circumstances when the influenza virus that is circulating happens to be similar to the virus used in creating the vaccine, the risk of needing to seek medical help is reduced by about half. Will be any luckier with the novel Coronavirus?

“Fortunately,” you may say, “we’re dealing with just one novel Coronavirus, not a host of variants like we have with influenza, so there’s no problem. One virus, one vaccine, one hope for all! That vaccine will work and will come on schedule, soon!” Thank you for that expression of faith. But please recognize that it is a view based on faith, not real science. Science might offer a different perspective. A study from one of the top universities in China, Zhejiang University in beautiful Hangzhou (one of my favorite cities in the world) examined the virus in 11 different patients in that city and found over 30 mutations. See “Coronavirus has mutated into at least 30 different strains new study finds” at The Jerusalem Post.

The large number of mutations that are probably occurring with this virus could make it more difficult to control with a vaccine. Even before this new data, Dr. William Haseltine for Scientific American explained why we really don’t know if we can develop an effective vaccine for this disease. So how long do we need to keep roughly 30 million people unemployed? How long do we need to suspend the Bill of Rights and let governors exercise vast power over their people and decide which businesses can live and which must die? Well, how long has it taken to successful prevent and cure the common cold from other Coronaviruses (and other families of viruses as well)? How long has it taken to cure AIDS with a safe, successful HIV vaccine?

We may see a miraculously swift and effective vaccine come out soon and be ready for widespread use in a year or two. But policies that rely on such hope are not really “science based,” no matter what our politicians and medical celebrities tell us as they justify the need for more control and more spending, with more billions going to their friends in Big Pharma and Wall Street. 

At this point, you may be feeling your blood pressure rise and a wave of righteous indignation sweeping over you. “This fool sounds like he’s about to question the wisdom of the lockdowns! They are working and saving our lives. He must be a vile person who doesn’t care about other people and puts money over lives!” If so, please understand that this reaction is not based on the scientific method. In principle, at least, the scientific method does not lead scientists to become angry when someone asks if there is solid evidence to support an assumption. Science is based on questioning assumptions and considering new evidence to test our hypotheses. Science should welcome, not condemn, data that points to weaknesses in understanding, for that may be an opportunity to advance our knowledge, if the data is accurate. It is in the realm of faith, especially blind or immature faith or religious zealotry, where reasonable inquiries may cause believers to feel threatened or angry, and where the response is to shout down or denounce the infidel who dares ask questions. The “science-based” approach some people support may be more faith-driven than they realize.

It’s an article of faith across much of our society that draconian lockdowns in the US and Europe are saving lives and are essential for coping with the virus. But do we really have data to support that? Yes, it’s logical that social distancing will reduce the rate of spread of the disease. But Americans were already taking extensive steps to do social distancing on their own before the lockdowns began. Many of us, most of us, were already washing our hands more, being careful about gatherings, and taking other steps that could help protect us. Is there evidence that we are significantly safer now because we have forced many businesses to close and tens of millions to lose their jobs? Is there evidence that staying indoors is safer than going to the public parks? Is there evidence that mass assemblies every day in Walmart make us healthier than going to the gym, to a park, or to a small business? Your faith may be strong and passionate on this matter, but is it really based on science as you have been led to believe?

An important question, though, is not whether or not the lockdowns work, but whether they are justified. Many influential voices are praising the lockdowns for saving many lives, but have they presented careful evidence that a lockdown truly saves lives versus no lockdown? If we compare states without draconian measures to those that ignore the Bill of Rights, can we see clear evidence that a lockdown itself can be credited with saving lives? This is rarely considered, though so far it seems that the data suggests there may not be evidence of a significant benefit to a lockdown. See, for example, Wilfred Reilly’s attempt to compare results to see the impact of lockdowns

South Dakota, for example, has come under much heat from the media for the apostate approach of  Governor Kristi Noem, the infidel who claims that she lacks the power to suspend the Bill of Rights and actually must uphold it based on some oath she took long ago when sworn into office. Her approach seems to be “teach people correct principles, and let them govern themselves” — a concept you may have heard before — when it comes to social distancing and coping with risks. Tragically, under this reckless approach, there have been 10 deaths in the state as of today. Each death is tragic, but when we consider that this number is barely a blip compared to many other routine causes of death, it might give you pause if you are open to science-based discussions. For example, South Dakota had nearly 200 suicides in 2017, over 20 times the deaths from COVID-19 so far. 

South Dakota is a remarkably safe place to drive, and last year had a record low number of automobile fatalities: 102, ten times their COVID-19 fatalities so far. That number was reported as good news, showing great progress in automobile safety, and was not used to frighten people into staying home and shutting down all non-essential travel, but we certainly could cut those deaths to nearly zero by simply banning travel. So why don’t we ban vehicular travel nationwide? Why don’t we spend most of each news broadcast talking about frightening automobile accidents and the need to force people to stay home to save lives? For most of us, the ability to travel is viewed as a right and as a necessity for economic well being. It’s always risk, a risk that could kill us one day, and while every death is tragic, facing risk and living with risk is part of life. 

But a key question for justification of the lockdowns is not whether they reduce Coronavirus deaths. Even if we believe that they are legally justified (that governors can properly suspend the Bill of Rights when they feel there is an emergency and dictate where we can go and which businesses can continue), to be justified, the lockdowns should at least have an overall positive effect on the health and well-being of the people. Even if you believe that one life saved justifies making 30 million people lose their jobs and a nation of school children regress in their education, does the science really show that lives are being saved overall? If one life saved is worth any cost, as one governor seems to think, what if that cost is 10 lives? Is that rational?

If the lockdown saves the lives of a lot of us older grandparents but leads to two suicides of younger people for each of us seniors that are saved, would anyone be arguing that we older people are just worth more than those with mental health issues? (Some mental health professionals are worried about the impact of our response on suicides. Tennessee, by the way, recently reported having more deaths from suicide than COVID-19, a phenomenon that may be true for many other places.) 

If more people will die from failure to see doctors now due to missed cancer detection, missed hypertension treatment, missed warning signs of heart disease — these are all very big killers, and the impact of lessened “non-essential” health care is a cause for great concern — or if lives saved from Coronavirus proves to be far less that the additional deaths due to the inactivity, poor diet, stress, and poor health care that comes from unemployment among millions of people, are we doing the right thing by crushing the economy now? Should be we be angry at people who are least ask such questions about the overall impact, even if it shakes one’s faith to hear such apostate talk?

The only thing that is apparently being considered by most of our politicians and, by his own admission, Dr. Fauci, is the impact of the Coronavirus per se. There’s no attempt to consider the balance between multiple factors. But the massive steps we have taken will affects tens of millions in adverse ways that will also cost lives. Just the missed diagnoses for cancer alone may result in deaths from lack of early detection that could be as great or greater than the health impact of the Coronavirus. On this issue, see: “Professor Warns Cancer Deaths Due to COVID Disruption Will Be Greater Than Deaths From Coronavirus” and the Harvard summary of a study on the 2008-10 economic downturn, “Global economic downturn linked with at least 260,000 excess cancer deaths.” What we have down to our economy already may have a far bigger impact than what we faced in 2008-10.

The lethal impact of our economic suicide may not be limited to indirect deaths from cancer, heart attacks, and actual suicides,  but could have a more direct lethal impact through widespread famine. This is not something I learned about from random angry anti-big-government sites, but from one of the major pro-government sources of all, the United Nations. David Beasley, UN World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director in the April 21 virtual session of the UN Security Council on the Maintenance of International Peace warned about the far-reaching impact of poverty arising from the response to COVID-19:

There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself. 

In a related article at WFP.org, WFP’s Chief Economist, Arif Husain said:

COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock – like COVID-19 – to push them over the edge. We must collectively act now to mitigate the impact of this global catastrophe.

I have been lucky to travel in China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, and some other parts of the world where real poverty afflicts many people, in spite of great progress in recent years to life the living standards there. It was especially in visiting the homes of a few of those afflicted by poverty in China and seeing what happens to their options, their quality of life, their health care, and other issues, that I came to see how awful the impact of poverty is. It leads to tragedies and unnecessary deaths and despair.  Our self-inflicted economic collapse, one that could be greater that that of the depression, will not just affect many American lives, but will have a wide circle of influence on the global economy and on the lives of those many millions who are now trying to rise out of poverty around the globe. Our nations and their nations need us to have a healthy economy, not one that is shut down unnecessarily. It is my disdain for poverty that makes it impossible for me to relish a trade war with China or other steps that will exacerbate poverty there or in other nations like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Mexico. (And don’t get me going on my disdain for war and the global harm caused by our war machine. Some other time we can have a calm discussion, I hope, about the evidence regarding the issue of what our trillions spent for war is doing in terms of making the world a better place or not.)

So many have a passionate faith that they need to stay locked down indefinitely and just trust their prophet-like leaders with their prophetic models of doom, even though the models have been so severely wrong that they should have no credibility by now, though they continue to guide policy and faith. what they have been told and stay locked down in fear. These passionate believers know what to do when someone raises inconvenient concerns about the bigger picture and the possibility that our self-inflicted economic wounds may be doing more harm than good. They will respond with passionate acts of faith to condemn the uncaring infidel. They may ask the social media enforces to deplatform me for spreading “fake news” that challenges the official government position. Perhaps some will eventually pursue an even more flamboyant act of faith, such as the good-ol’ auto-da-fé that was a tried and true way in the past to enforce the faith and correct the non-believers. But if such anger is your gut reflex, at least realize that it may not be as scientific and science-based as some would have you believe. 

At least for some parts of the country, sustained lockdowns do not appear to be justified by logic, science, or law (I suggest that the freedom to assemble, free speech, religious freedom, etc. are meaningless if all it takes is one official declaring it’s an emergency to nullify those rights without due process). The impact of economic suicide may be far greater than the limited good being achieved. And the fear that has been whipped up in the media with constant attention to this virus may be wildly out of proportion to risks that the US people have been coping with for years, such as a over 60,000 deaths from the flu in a single season a couple years ago, 99,000 deaths last year from hospital acquired infections (easily solved by any politician: just burn hospitals to the ground to stop those infections at their source — isn’t it worth it if only one life is saved?), 40,000 deaths a year from car crashes, etc. But for centuries, we have understood that such risks are part of life, and have chosen to move forward. Now we are surrendering our economy and our Constitutional rights to cower in fear. Is this healthy? The latest scientific data suggest that sunlight is useful in killing the virus, so instead of a “Safer-at-Home” edict for my state and yours, the science-based approach perhaps should be “Safer Outside of Home” edicts that let us get back to our lives, while continuing to take appropriate steps to keep us more vulnerable folks safe, while letting the young have their future back.

COVID-19 is worse than the flu. The death rate for infected cases looks like it’s about 0.4% now that we have better data, which is worse than the flu, but not horrifically so.  The death rate in many states has been far less than a typical flu season. In fact, far less than a typical flu season for that state. Flu deaths in South Dakota for the 2017-18 flu season were over 20 times higher than the 10 COVID-19 deaths far, and here in Wisconsin, the flu deaths were nearly 4 times higher than the 262 deaths we’ve had so far, though we’ve had a new spike in cases and sadly more deaths are likely. As a reminder to those of you who are saying these lockdowns are needed to save the children, 97% of our deaths in Wisconsin have been in the 60+ age group and zero have been reported for people under 40 years old. It’s not the young that we’re saving. 

The horror that we see from COVID-19 largely comes from New York City, where severe problems exist. It seems that their crowded subway system was the ideal environment for spreading the disease (woe to the heretics who might opine that maybe driving to work in a car is much safer). But their crisis is not the crisis the entire nation faces. Florida with a greater population and a very high percentage of vulnerable older people was predicted by the experts to be facing even more deaths than New York, but at 1,046 deaths in Florida, they are nowhere close to the 16,599 deaths in New York as of today. New York’s panic need not be ours (though almost all our media is from their and their crisis informs every report, contributing to the national panic). The steps they feel they must take need not be emulated everywhere else. Even at this late date, with abundant data showing New York’s situation to not be representative of the rest of country, I see intelligent believers declaring that if we lift the lockdowns soon, we will end up having a worse problem than New York. That kind of fear is based on faith in authority figures who have botched their figures; it is not based on science.  

What am I calling for? Science, not misguided faith in technocrats or politicians or media figures, to make informed decisions. Respect of our Constitution and allowing communities to decide what protective measures are appropriate. Teaching the people correct principles and letting us figure out how to live our lives, run our businesses safely, how to exercise in a gym, how to jog or enjoy sunlight without getting a ticket, how to get a haircut without having to be an elite politician (sorry, Chicago!), how to take care of our children and our elderly, and how and where to shop. 

As for education, let communities and families figure that out. But one thing I’ll say: we should realize that the people who have done most to help keep school children safe from viruses, safe from bullying, and safe from mass shootings are the parents who have been doing home schooling. Right now, if you know a home schooling parent, chances are they can give you great tips on the resources needed for effective remote education and how to do schooling at home more effectively. In addition to praising our medical care workers for the valiant work they are doing (sorry to the many who are now on inactive or furloughed because of the painful ban on non-essential medical services, resulting in many hospitals being emptier than ever), perhaps we should also spend some time thanking home schoolers for the work they have done to help keep children safe and healthy. Many more families may wish to consider that option for their children. 

Wow, so many heresies in one blog post! I’m truly a lost soul, I know. But I had to mention the home schooling issue because in the widespread spirit of “never let a crisis go to waste” and “let’s use this panic to push through the rest of our agenda,” a brilliant Harvard professor just came out with a call to ban homeschooling in order to “protect” our children. As with many things being done to “protect” us in this crisis, the solutions are sometimes more about power and wealth than about actually making life better for Americans. Sorry, but I’m just not a believer when it comes to trusting the elite who always know how to run our lives better. 

Whether you agree or not with my proposals, I hope you will agree that we should ask for wise decisions to be made that will protect our communities in the long run, overall, carefully weighing the multiple factors and risks, not just one. I hope you will also ask that such decisions carefully respect the rights of individuals, rights that should not be summarily suspended without due process regardless of how bad a flu season or how bad any other crisis is or is imagined to be.  Let’s rely more on real science and real inquiry, not a faith-based, fear-based approach.

Postscript

At least one faithful member of the Church has accused me of going against the Church in suggesting that the lockdowns might not be helpful. Since the Church has asked members to suspend their meetings to reduce spreading the virus, that supposedly suggests the Church and the Lord think that lockdowns are the way to go. But as I’ve explained, I’m very much in favor of what the Church has done.  It’s a great example of the voluntary steps that organizations can take on their own to reduce risk. The Church and the Lord, as far as I can tell, has not called for businesses to be shuttered and millions to be unemployed. In fact, on the COVID-related Church website, “Keeping Our Employees and Service Missionaries Safe During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic,” we read the Church is encouraging working from home for its employees when possible, but does not appear to be laying off mass numbers of people or slashing paychecks. Further, regarding Utah offices, “Church offices remain open for the workforce, including stand-alone operations (e.g. Church Office Building, Global Services Department, Joseph Smith Building, Riverton Office Building, Bishops’ storehouses, Beehive Clothing, Granite Mountain Records Vault).” Offices are being kept open. Work is continuing, but being done safely. It’s a smart, voluntary move, one that businesses can figure out on their own. Nothing in any of the Church’s statements regarding COVID-19 appear to endorse shutting down most of the economy and promoting a nation dependent on a government for sustenance. The principles of provident living and self-reliance still apply.