The Invasion of Ukraine

The invasion of Ukraine on February 24th was the largest military assault on another nation since WWII. It was an act of naked aggression against a peaceful sovereign nation. This is a criminal act and should be made as costly as possible for the Russians. I speak for millions when I say I hope the Ukrainians, who’ve shown a lot of heroism so far, make this incursion so costly the Russian army and the Russian people decide they’ve had enough of the dictator and mafia boss in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s demise and the growth of a genuine democracy in Russia would be the best outcome for the Russian people and the world. Of course the odds are clearly in Putin’s favor right now.

So far, though, from a lot of what I’ve read this morning it appears the Ukrainians aren’t going to just let the Russians walk right in. There are a lot of reports the Russian army is taking greater casualties than they probably anticipated. No doubt this is partially true because the United States and the European community had time to arm and equip and provide tactical advice. But it’s largely true because the Ukrainians are prepared to die to defend their democracy and their way of life against the Russian invaders. The support and the heroism of the Ukrainian army appears to be paying off for the moment. But autocrats like Putin don’t care about casualties either way, and now that Putin’s ego is committed he will flog his army forward regardless to avoid a humiliating defeat and the consequences that would likely follow a retreat.

Americans should care greatly about what happens in Ukraine because, like Ukraine, we’re a liberal democracy. If you are the least bit read in history you probably know democracy is the exception and autocracy the rule in human history. The world’s history is mostly the history of masters, through military rule and intimidation, dictating to the masses what life the masses will have and what freedoms, if any, they will enjoy. In large part this is the life of most Russians right now.

Like America, Ukraine is a liberal democracy. It’s ruled by its people and has a government of the people’s choosing. Ukrainians share our hopes and aspirations. We are united by the animating spirit of liberal democracy; by the need to keep its flame burning in the surrounding darkness of history. The people ruling themselves, and not being ruled by autocrats like Vladimir Putin, are what being a pro-democracy, rule of law, freedom loving people should ultimately stand ready to defend. The Ukrainians are doing this and we should support them in their fight against tyranny.

I believe America’s and Europe’s interest are in supporting the Ukrainian army with as much ammo, training, and weapons as possible. If the Russians succeed and the Ukrainians continue fighting with an insurgency the West must continue to provide support to the insurgent Ukrainian force. The use of American troops simply cannot be justified given all the implications at this time. European nations have the first obligation to defend their own sovereignty if the situation calls for it.

But Putin has put the Europeans on notice that defense spending will have to be increased. Authoritarianism, which had been on the rise in Europe and the United States recently, is on the march again militarily in Europe. America, critically, must provide support and leadership against this surge of authoritarianism. If Ukraine falls, then the West, led by the United States, must isolate Russia and starve its economy. NATO should immediately begin a military build up within NATO nations that border all Russian controlled territory. Only a completely uneducated fool believes Putin will be satisfied with just adding Ukraine to Russian control. The only message Putin will understand is simple, and that is strength and resolve.

Our devotion to the underlying ideal

We like to curse “politics” and “politicians,” and no doubt some of the bastards deserve it. But the simple truth is we’re social beings, which means we’re political beings, and that means politics is always part of the equation. It’s just part of who we are; it’s part of how the world turns for humanity. So look in the mirror: politics and politicians are just reflections of us, of you, of me. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “Our leaders, our government is us, all of us, so if they’re venal and weak it’s because we are.”

The Founders of this country, especially Madison and Hamilton, were clear-eyed about our deeply flawed (i.e. pathetically self-interested) human nature and so they helped design a Constitutional Republic that’s institutions provided checks on individual and/or party ambition. Power was purposely diffused. This process encouraged coalition building, another word for bipartisanship, among legislators as they try to reach a deal. In a liberal democracy, like the United States, where individual rights and the rule of law are sacred, this is a critical element in successful democratic self-governance.

The underlying ideal of liberal democracy is that differences are settled by laws, by process, by ballots not bullets, by elections not wars. The southern states broke faith with the ideal in 1861 and it cost the nation over 600,000 lives and the destruction of the southern economy and many southern cities. The underlying ideal, at its core, is the belief that after all the arguments and rhetoric and shouting and nonsense, in the end, we settle the contest by law, by process, by elections. There’s no appeal to the results of a free and fair election. The people have rendered their verdict…for now. Those who lost have the next election for an appeal to the voters.

The underlying ideal means if you want to enact a public policy or a change in public leadership you have to engage in the tough work of persuading the voters. That IS democracy in action. Intimidating and threatening election officials, lying about election results, enacting voter suppression laws, aren’t acts of people trying to persuade, but of those betraying the underlying ideal for their self-interested ideology, for raw power. These acts are anti-democratic and are meant to be so.

I’ve struggled with maintaining a positive attitude given incredible breach of faith in the underlying ideal by many on the political right these days. Nothing good can come of it for them, their constituents, or our democracy. And yet! I do believe there are enough people devoted—on all sides—to the underlying ideal that we’ll slowly work our way through these turbulent times, preserve our great democracy, and, I pray, our continued faith in the underlying ideal.

Bruce Catton has an excellent quote about politics and democracy that I think says it very well:

Politics works at a high price and operates at the lowest common denominator of what exists in the hearts of the people—which means the hearts of you and me. There is cowardice there, often enough, and meanness, and petty selfishness, and politics has to take them into account. Yet those same hearts contain courage and nobility and faith, and in the last analysis the good outweighs the bad. We live by politics. We do various hopelessly inefficient things, we waste enormous amounts of strength and energy, we compromise everything but the underlying ideal—but because at bottom there is an underlying devotion to that ideal, we keep on living.

Toward Functional Immunity

Katherine J. Wu:

Eventually, all discussions about sterilizing immunity [Ability to totally prevent infection] become nerdy quibbles over semantics. Clearly, not every infection is clinically meaningful, or even logistically detectable, given the limits of our technology—nor do they need to be, if there’s no sickness or transmission. (A koan for pandemic times: If a microbe silently and inconsequentially copies itself in a tissue, and the body doesn’t notice, did it actually infect?) There is, for every pathogen, a threshold at which an infection becomes problematic; all the immune system has to do is suppress its rise below this line to keep someone safe.

But that might be exactly the point. Say that sterilizing immunity is impossible, that our immune systems cannot, in fact, be trained to achieve perfection. Then it’s neither a surprise nor a shortcoming that COVID-19 vaccines, or other vaccines, don’t manage it: An inoculation that guards marvelously well against disease—offering as much protection as it can—can still end an outbreak. Life would certainly be easier if vaccines offered invincible armor, with pathogens simply ricocheting off. But they don’t, and assuming or expecting them to manage that can be dangerous. The dubiousness of sterilizing immunity is a reminder that just about any immune response can be overwhelmed, if exposures are heavy and frequent enough, Grad told me. The best we can all hope for is functional immunity, more like a flame retardant than a firewall, that still keeps bad burns at bay.

The Spike

I’ve been having a running debate with a good friend about COVID-19 versus the seasonal flu. My friend basically argues that our government’s reaction to COVID-19 is way overdone. I suspect some of you have friends saying similar things.

My friend makes these two general points: 1) More people in the U.S. die of the seasonal flu each year and we don’t lock down (stay-at-home orders) our society over that, and 2) the current mortality rate of COVID-19 (calculated at around maybe 2%) is wrong (way too high) because the current lack of broad testing means we don’t know how many people actually have (or have had) the virus—and it’s likely to be much higher—to be able to say with any accuracy what the actual mortality rate is among those who’ve contracted the virus. So, as he says, the current “numbers and charts mean nothing.” My friend thinks the mortality rate of COVID-19 will be somewhere around 002% or less when all is said and tested. In other words, he thinks, there is nothing to be alarmed about since seasonal influenza is in the same mortality rate ballpark.

Regardless of the debate over statistical measures, the problem I have with my friend’s arguments is what’s happening on the ground. The simple and stark reality is in hot zones where this virus is running rampant, like New York City, the hospitals began filling with people sick and dying from COVID-19 infections. That doesn’t happen during your typical flu season.

No matter how anyone want’s to debate the lethality of COVID-19 compared to the seasonal flu, the stark reality is we know for a fact that where COVID-19 did spread fast and wide, the hospitals began getting hit hard with COVID-19 patients, many of them sick for weeks and many others dying. So instead of talking statistics let’s just talk in simple math. Take a look at this simple graph from the New Atlantis that tracked reported new deaths, per week, from various causes we have data on, and our current COVID-19 epidemic.

As the data shows, and the New Atlantis piece explains, the spike (in red) of COVID-19 deaths is fast and almost straight up. On the horizontal line you see the weeks into the epidemic. On the vertical line the number of newly reported deaths per million. And let me remind you that during the 2017-18 flu and 1957-58 Asian flu, the nation didn’t lock down or require social distancing. So those numbers happened while our society was open and operating as normal. Notice there is no drastic spike in reported deaths. The drastic COVID-19 spike in reported deaths happened largely while the nation was locked down and people were social distancing. Imagine the numbers and the graph line for COVID-19 deaths if we weren’t social distancing right now and just carrying on business as usual, like we do during a typical seasonal flu?

When your friend tells you “Well, there were about 45,000 deaths last year from the flu and we didn’t do this,” you might want to remind him or her that number is for estimated deaths for seasonal influenza OVER AN ENTIRE SEASON or year. In the chart above the period of measure is about 33 weeks. As of this writing, it’s been about 8 weeks since the first death of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S., and the current reported death toll is at 46,785. Just do the math. And remember our society has no vaccine currently. We have no herd immunity, unlike we do with seasonal influenza.

Left unchecked COVID-19 would continue to spread rapidly and our hospital and healthcare systems would become completely overrun. If we had just let our society carry on as usual, like we do during the seasonal flu, there is little doubt the death toll would reach into the hundreds of thousands, probably millions. As the New Atlantis points out, “In the worst week of the 2017-18 flu season, New York saw 445 deaths from flu and pneumonia and 3,481 total from all causes. Last week, the state saw 4,694 reported Covid-19 deaths alone.”

COVID-19 cannot be compared to a seasonal flu. The simple arithmetic demonstrates it’s much worse. We will beat this virus once we have a vaccine, and let’s pray that’s soon.

These are challenging times, but try to keep it all in perspective

Besides being one of the best liberal arts educations you can get, the study of history is also quite therapeutic. The ancient Stoics had a technique for helping individuals deal with the vicissitudes of life, called negative visualization. Basically it’s about preparing your mind for the worse by imagining, beforehand, that things could be a lot worse. Well socially speaking the study of history pretty much provides the same therapy. We may think the current coronavirus epidemic and all that’s happening are really bad, but as any good student of history would tell you, “True, these are not the best of times, but believe me our societies have faced situations far far worse.”

It’s only in modern times, with the advances of modern medical science, like vaccinations, antibiotics, and antiviral drugs, that societies have been able to save millions of lives ultimately from deadly bacterias and viruses that regularly emerge within populations. I would say the discovery of the vaccine should be rated the greatest life saving discovery in medical science history. Before vaccines any new toxic bacteria or deadly virus disappeared only after it had burned through a population.

For example, when the bubonic plague (known as “the Black Death”) was ravaging Europe during the 14th century some regions, towns, and cities, had well over 50% of the population whipped out. It’s estimated that two-thirds of the approximately 660,000 deaths of soldiers during the American Civil War were caused by uncontrolled infectious diseases. Upwards of 2 million soldiers died of infectious diseases during WWI. During the 1918-1919 Spanish influenza epidemic, the world’s death toll was somewhere between 50 and 100 million dead. In the United States alone we had about 675,000 deaths caused by the Spanish flu.

History provides something needed by individuals and societies during difficult and challenging times, and that’s perspective.

The current coronavirus epidemic is a very challenging situation. No one should downplay the long term damage and disruption to our society. But while we’re lamenting how bad this situation is we should try to remember that many past generations in history experienced far worse and ultimately recovered, rebuilt, and thrived. We will too.