27 May 2020 – Wednesday – #73

I want to talk about Covid-19 misinformation. But fist, here’s some information that’s hot off the press. Spain released an updated excess deaths curve today.

The official Covid-19 death toll today in Spain is 27,117. Given the revised “excess” deaths curve, that works out to about 16,000 “excess” deaths that weren’t categorized as Covid-19. These excess deaths are unexpected deaths that were either Covid-19 deaths mis-categorized as something else (typical, for instance, in nursing homes or at private residences where corpses aren’t tested) or non-Covid-19 deaths likely due to the inundation of the Spanish healthcare system.

I want to point out that Spain’s excess death curve clearly peaks about two weeks after the commencement of its Covid-19 lockdown. The Spanish mortality curve is typical for countries that used lockdowns as opposed, say, to using nothing (effectively what Ecuador did) or to using test, track, and quarantine (e.g., South Korea, Vietnam, Ghana). The test, track, and quarantine has provided the best Covid-19 outcomes so far, but it requires leadership that most countries lack and has to be implemented before cases spiral out of control.

There is one other news item before I move on to Covid-19 misinformation. Twitter has started fact checking Trump’s feed. It marked as false yesterday two of Trump’s posts claiming voting by mail created voter fraud. It’s not nearly enough to fact check Trump. Twitter should have shut down Trump’s feed for hate speech and other policy violations long, long ago. But it makes a lot of money off Trump, so fact-checking may be the best anyone can hope for. At least Twitter, unlike Facebook, doesn’t accept political advertising money.

One problem I have with misinformation is feeling the need to correct it. It’s impossible to keep up, of course. Occasionally I even get drawn in to non-productive debates about Covid-19 policy based on cherry-picked facts. Believers are gonna believe.

In a pandemic, though, misinformation is about life and death, so I’m going to look at misinformation I see frequently. Maybe this will help you sort through your social feeds more effectively.

I want to start with misinformation about China. Trump is clearly using it as part of his effort to place responsibility for the 100,000+ US Covid-19 deaths anywhere other than the White House. Friends of mine seem to ignore the racist overtones of attacks on China. The claims about China run the gamut. A claim popular with the Trump administration is that China made a concerted effort to hide Covid-19 early in the outbreak. Covid-19 timelines don’t support this very well.

I don’t think China was completely transparent early on, especially with its mortality statistics. China is not alone in providing poor statistics, by the way. Russia misrepresents its Covid-19 mortality, as do the US states of Florida and Georgia. I do think China was trying to make sense of information much like any other country facing Covid-19 for the first time, except that China, being first to have Covid-19, didn’t have the benefit of other countries’ experience to figure out how to respond.

One counterclaim to China keeping Covid-19 a secret is that around Christmas, a 17-year old Seattle area high school student had launched a website to track Covid-19. You have to wonder how much of a secret it really was if US high school students are following along by late December last year.

Another counterclaim is a little out there, but I think worth at least considering. Seth Abramson believes that Trump went to Walter Reed hospital in November last year not, as Trump claims, to begin his routine physical, but because of fears he was sick with Covid-19.

Is this misinformation? Draw your own conclusion. Abramson provides supporting facts that you can check. If his claim is true, and it looks to me like the facts he points to at least line up correctly with his claim, then Trump has been lying about Covid-19 much more than the Chinese. Would that surprise anyone?

There are many claims that China released Covid-19 from a Chinese lab. My favorite is the claim that Chinese scientists invented Covid-19 for sinister purposes. It’s my favorite because it gives humans, in general, and the Chinese, in particular, a lot more credit than they deserve to engineer such a virus, and because, if you actually believe this, there are much bigger fish to fry than Covid-19. Like, what’s the next course in this Wuhan viral meal?

If you would like to consider the Chinese point of view about Covid-19, here’s an interview with virologist Shao Yiming of China’s CDC. Please read that before you tell me the Chinese invented Covid-19. To me, this part stood out.

A stint at the global program on AIDS at the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1989 led [Shao Yiming] to help set up a network to track genetic variation in HIV, and the project grew into an international resource. He remembers well the conspiracy theories that for years swirled around the origin of the AIDS epidemic, with accusations hurled at everyone from top researchers to the U.S. military.

Science, “‘The house was on fire.’ Top Chinese virologist on how China and U.S. have met the pandemic,” 22 May 2020.

That reminded me that Russia’s first successful disinformation campaigns was about AIDS. Russia planted an article in an obscure Indian newspaper called the Patriot. The article said, in part, “AIDS … is believed to be the result of the Pentagon’s experiments to develop new and dangerous biological weapons.” The article got picked up and republished around the world. Even though it had no credibility, it forced American new anchors to have to bring up the story just to discredit it.

Does that sound vaguely familiar to you? Does it remind you at all of the misinformation about Covid-19 coming from Chinese labs?

I’m running out of time, so I’m going to run through other misinformation I see on my feeds.

The hot misinformation recently is from Real Clear Politics about why lockdowns weren’t necessary. I don’t want to debunk this point-by-point, but here are a few salient problems with the arguments. First, look at the excess death curve at the top of this entry. Imagine what that curve looks like without a lockdown. Then there is the Sweden argument. I wrote about why Sweden’s “lockdown lite” didn’t work here. Also, comparing Sweden to the US is demographic and geographic nonsense. Please compare Sweden to its Scandinavian neighbors with similar geographies, demographics, medical systems, etc. Then there is the age mortality argument. I wrote about how more young people die from Covid-19 in less developed countries here. If you really want to try the no-lockdown experiment, check out what happened in Ecuador first.

A variation of the “why lockdowns weren’t necessary” argument is the now that the lockdowns are over, we can see they weren’t necessary. Again, look at the excess death curve at the top of this entry. Imagine what that curve looks like without a lockdown. This article claims that R is declining in places that have lifted lockdowns. That is to be expected for at least two weeks because R data is trailing. Places like Germany have seen R increase as have many US states.

This report from American Institute for Economic Research has got people claiming that if we didn’t lock down for the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu, we shouldn’t lock down for Covid-19. Here’s the obvious problem with this argument. Covid-19 has killed as many Americans in 2 months as the H3N2 virus killed over 18 months. There is no comparison between the virulence of the two viruses. Covid-19 kills about 10x faster. That is why there wasn’t a Hong Kong flu massacre after Woodstock.

Then there is the rumor that Bill Gates is funding Covid-19 vaccines so that he can implant everyone with a tracking chip, something 40% of Republicans believe. Here is my favorite retort to that misinformation.

Last, but not least, Trump’s claim that hydrochloroquine is the silver bullet for Covid-19. This piece of misinformation seems impossible to shake even though several studies show hydroxychloroquine does not benefit Covid-19 patients and, in fact, increases their heart risks.

My response is simple. If hydroxychloroquine works so well, why do we need a vaccine by the end of the year?

Please wear a mask when you go out, maintain your social distance, and wash your hands when you come back in. That can stop Covid-19.

To stop viral misinformation, please double check your sources. That may be just as important to ending this pandemic.

I write this for my sanity. If it helps yours, please email it to your friends or post on your social media. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “27 May 2020 – Wednesday – #73

  1. Jonah Berger’s book “Contagious” is about what makes ideas catch on through word-of-mouth and social media. It’s pretty fascinating. Covid-19 is highly unlikely to have been “engineered,” but some of the viral disinformation around it has been well thought out, designed, and produced with professional care.


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