I wish I were a COVID maven

Why do I doubt every report, statistic, proclamation and article I read? Why can't I be a maven too? Op-ed.

Rochel Sylvetsky ,

Doctor holds hand of coronavirus patient
Doctor holds hand of coronavirus patient

How I wish I were a COVID-19 maven. [1]

I want to be like all the journalists, laymen, researchers, statisticians and medical professionals, who, since March and with such self-assurance, publish and post all those articles, sign letters and proclamations and declarations, unhesitatingly telling us either that masks don't make a difference that COVID is much less infectious than we think, that social distancing is useless, that mouthwash and aspirin are a cure or that we must sacrifice to attain herd immunity. Some say that Sweden had it right all along, that the economy is more worrisome and more important than the spread of the pandemic, that it's more damaging than the disease to declare a lockdown - and also useless even if we leave it gradually, that no matter what the government says - we are going to have weddings and other simchas as usual without telling the virus, that the fatality rate is bearable, that there are negligible numbers of people with aftereffects, that the restrictions mean the end of democracy, that children who were back in school did not get ill, despite Health Ministry claims, so they don't need [child-abusing] masks whether or not they might bring the virus home with them to those at risk.

I may have missed some as even run-on sentences have their limits, so I will leave the reader to add his own maven profundities. There are new ones all the time and it's easy to find links to the ones above. [2]

Of all the mavens, my favorite is the one who asks you incredulously - you call this a pandemic? The Spanish flu killed 50 million, the Black Plague killed half of Europe's population - and you call this a pandemic? I want to say, give us a chance, we are working on it, but instead I mention that I can learn to live with less, and that over a million deaths is quite enough for me.

You see, each one of the claims above keeps changing and anyway, they can be and are being responded to and countered by other, just as intelligent, journalists, laymen, researchers, statisticians and medical professionals, who write articles and sign letters, proclamations and declarations which say exactly the opposite.

I. What's a non-maven to do?

Maven or not, there are several conclusions, some logical, some self-evident and some just gut feelings, that I have reached from suffering through this muddle:

First, a good many anti-regulations-corona-mavens remind me of no-Trumpers. They are almost religious in their beliefs, angry at those who dare to differ, keep looking for information that fits and thus often provide what is essentially fake or skewed information (take the mouthwash and aspirin claim –read past the headline and you will see that just the title claims a cure), without presenting dissenting opinions, and are sometimes annoyed when you look for them. [3]

Second, but really first, more humility and less hubris wouldn't hurt the mavens who are so quick to criticize whatever measures are being taken by anxious and beleaguered governments, and who are so quick to pan masks, social distancing and lockdowns. Let's face it: No one knows anything worth knowing about the coronavirus from experience, let alone from extrapolations, comparisons, and statistics on the population of who-knows-where because not enough time has passed to know anything and this is a field day for lying with statistics. [4]

Third, no one can generalize and say that research or survey results in one country, say Denmark, have applicable bearing on the rest of the world– since a significant number of the variables cannot be made equal to those in other places. Each country, maybe each county [5] has its own variables. No maven tells you what the failings of a statistical study are - perhaps he doesn't know - like the fact that Denmark did not have mandatory mask wearing in force when the aforementioned study was done.

Certainly, no one can compare COVID in tiny Israel to COVID in the vast USA, not with regard to what is happening, what is being done or not done, and what measures can realistically be taken in Israel but not in the USA, although people keep comparing the two. [6]

Fourth, no one can analyze the research reports, no matter how many countries they check, to assess their predictive validity accurately, because this is a pandemic in progress, unpredictable and changing, like the virus itself.

Fifth, it is easy to mislead both mavens and non-mavens. Few read carefully enough to realize that when a study says that people with masks and without masks contracted corona at almost the same rates, it means nothing unless you thought that they protect you from corona. It so happens that masks are not meant to protect you from contracting corona, but are meant to keep you from giving it to others. Like the surgeons who wear masks when operating so they will not send their germs into the patient's abdominal cavity. Which anti-masker wants to volunteer to tell the surgeon not to wear a mask during his own appendix operation?

No one knows anything for sure because it will probably take years to be able to look back, once we have defeated this virus and returned to normal life, and can do definitive worldwide comparative studies and draw conclusions.

Sixth, when it comes to which drugs and forms of treatment do or do not work, the situation is the same. Only the mavens say they know for sure if there is really a big-Pharm conspiracy behind the rejection of certain drugs. Could be. But oddly, the same Lancet that rejected the "miracle drug" due to what turned out to be a faulty research project is quoted when it writes something more pleasing to the maven ear.

And remember: Those mavens who pressure the government to open things up will hold the government responsible for whatever happens when they do. That's due to the switchable helix in a maven's DNA which, unlike a computer, has no memory.
One bright spot: We seem to have learned how to come up with vaccines faster, but time will tell.

Seventh, be grateful, maven or not. Oveworked doctors the world over are trying to improve protocols in real time. That's what happens in an unforeseen medical crisis.

In Israel, we are making decisions as we go along, some correct, some mistaken, probably some unnecessary, However, my halakha teacher used to say about questions relating to doing something on Shabbat – when you are in doubt – it's out.

So, I am not a maven but I would support those who err on the side of enforcing restrictions in an attempt to save lives.[7]

Read a balanced and wise article on the whole thing Listen to a doctor telling you to love your neighbor as yourself

II. Points to ponder for non mavens:

1. When the mavens say cautionary measures are wrong, read carefully. Be wary. Be mistrustful.

2. If you read that the government is lying on purpose, and trying to take over and kill democracy and freedom by means of mandatory masks, useless and harmful lockdowns, limited gatherings and inflated numbers which sharp spikes made irrelevant, think about it. Some of it is probably true, but do you really believe that enough to ignore the restrictions due to the conspiracy theories of mavens on various websites who may simply be anti-establishment or innately unable to tolerate discipline and limitations? How do you know that experts who claim any of these things are not publicity-seekers?

3. Israelis, me included, who love to complain, love to blame the government most of all [8] but are sincerely concerned about the state of small businesses, children stuck at home, families disintegrating and unemployment. They are right, but life on this earth is replete with terrible setbacks and difficulties, and it seems as if they or their loved ones are not in a corona ward, thank G-d, if they are worried about businesses and children's schooling, upsetting as they are.

4. Think about the fantastic ways of coping and the strength of the human spirit that we have witnessed. There are even sociologists who worry we may never want to go back to our former level of personal interaction because we have become accustomed to this kind of life.

5. The children's education will be just fine. Despite the predictions of education mavens, everything they missed can be made up for later. Same for shopping and travelling abroad. Who are we kidding?

6. And yes, the economy can become bustling again one day, and while hearts go out to those struggling to cope with small businesses and unemployment, that can be remedied eventually even if times are hard now. We can certainly demand that the government help more and faster.

7. Saving lives should come first, and yes, even elderly lives should come first. Lives cannot be restored. There is also long term corona, corona after-effects, and the statistics for over 40s are also not that great.

And remember: Those mavens who pressure the government to open things up will hold the government responsible for whatever happens when they do. That's due to the switchable helix in a maven's DNA which, unlike a computer, has no memory.

III. Some facts from a non maven:

1. Herd immunity: 40-70% must have the disease for herd immunity to happen, say advocates. This is a speculation, of course, although always written with certainty. No region has ever achieved herd immunity from corona virus, and all admit that to try to achieve it purposefully means being prepared for a spike in deaths. Anyone volunteering?

2. It doesn't matter how many people sign a declaration or who they are. It is still just a declaration.

3. You may remember all the mavens who wrote and said that lots of people die of flu every year, despite the vaccine, and we don't get upset about that. The Economist decided to try to answer that by looking for facts, employing what they called a mortality tracker. They tracked excess deaths across countries i.e. the number of people who died from any cause in a given region and period, compared with a baseline from recent years. The only explanation for excess deaths, if found, would be COVID-19.

They checked deaths from all causes in 24 European countries, covering 290m people. Their figures, if the countries are telling the truth and not lowering numbers, show that, compared with a historical baseline of 2009-19, and Europe has suffered some deadly flu seasons since 2016— the death toll this year from covid-19 is far greater. Overall, as of mid-October, the number of excess deaths across the continent since March is about 170,000. Though most of those victims have been older than 65, the number of deaths among Europeans aged 45-64 was 40% higher than usual in early April.

Here are some of the findings, with the first number giving absolute excess deaths and the second, the breakdown to excess deaths per 100k citizens which makes the results meaningful:

Mexico 158,000 and 151, Britain 65,000 and 99, Sweden- low at first, but higher than Norway and Denmark and then a spike to 6382 and 62, Russia 83,000 and 57, Belgium, 11,000 and 99.

So it is not like the flu. It is not the Black Plague either, but it is bad enough.

4. Which brings me to the next fact, oddly also flu connected. In the Southern Hemisphere, where winter and flu season have just ended, there was almost no flu this year. With no other parameters changing, the conclusion (unless you think covid virus eats flu virus for dinner) seems to be that masks and social distancing along with hand washing did the trick.

At least that's what the Aussies claim as they scratch their heads in amazement while wearing masks beside their billabongs and keeping two meters away from any wandering swagmen herding closely under the shade of a koolaba tree.

Mavens, non-mavens and all.


[1] I could have written "I want to be a corona maven when I grow up," but: a. If I have not grown up by now it ain't gonna happen and b. We want it to be over much faster than that and I don't want to be accused of causing the Evil Eye to get involved.

[2] I have omitted the arguments over whether corona data and hospital bed shortages were and are inflated as Israel approached its second lockdown. I don't know. Just a few days later, the sharp spike in morbidity, hospitalizations and deaths put the question to bed.

[3] Still, while there were protests, I haven't heard of riots so far except near the PM's house and Big Tech has not blocked those who believe keeping masks on is important.

[4] I own the book How to Lie with Statistics" since my college years in the CCNY math department. Highly recommended, if in print.

[5] UK counties, for example, showed statistically significant differences on a good many parameters.

[6] There are also people who think tiny Israel, with its problematic and unstable coalition governments, should switch to a Senate and House of Representatives, but I have been told that they have not found the 13th state yet.

[7] In case you were wondering, I am not in an ivory tower, my life has changed radically, and there is less of it ahead for me in which to go back to normal activities, compared to those younger than I who may be finding it harder now, but who will one day, hopefully see this period as a mad episode in a long and fruitful life.

[8] Don't feel sorry for the government, they wanted to be PM, Ministers and MKs, so let the buck stop there.