Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Hesitancy

June 15, 2021

Probably realizing that the term anti-vaxxer has a lot of problematic (and inaccurate) ramifications to it, the term I see being used a lot these days for folks who haven’t sought out a COVID vaccine is hesitant. I don’t think the frequent vitriol behind this term is any more muted than that behind the term anti-vaxxer. But it sounds nicer. Until you start listening to what is being said to and about those who are hesitant.

I fall into that hesitant camp. Even though I’ve had and recovered from COVID without issue (as the vast majority of those infected with COVID do), I’m being told in the media that I still need to get vaccinated. My question is why. The vaccine is intended to prompt and instruct the body on how to produce antibodies capable of fighting a COVID infection, either preventing full-blown infection or reducing the symptoms of such an infection (thereby decreasing the odds of winding up in the hospital on a ventilator). That’s how the vaccine has been explained to us. However, since I had COVID, my body already knows how to produce those antibodies. It had to learn that a harder way, some might say. But it learned. It produced the antibodies, and it now knows how to produce those antibodies again should it need them.

A study released late last month indicates as such. And the report asserts people who have recovered from even mild cases of COVID have exactly the same anti-body producing capabilities as those who receive the vaccine. Yet the CDC’s current recommendation is that relaxing of mask and social distancing rules – not to mention potential travel and other restrictions – be lifted only for those who are vaccinated, and not for those who have recovered from COVID (and would presumably be given the option of a paper or digital certification that the associated antibodies have been found in their bodies).

What is being created is a dangerous and, at least in my lifetime, unprecedented division based on health decisions. One set of rules for people who have received the vaccine, and another for those who have not. The lunacy of this goes beyond simply the logistical level, and I believe contributes a great deal to the hesitancy and skepticism of some people – the very people the CDC apparently wants desperately to convince to get vaccinated.

Why won’t I get the COVID vaccine until it is unavoidable? Why am I hesitant or skeptical?

  1. I’ve had COVID (as verified by a state-run COVID testing site administered by professionals). Therefore, I have the antibodies to fight it. I have seen no documentation that disputes this is the case.
  2. I have seen zero evidence that having the vaccine on top of having recovered from COVID gives me any demonstrable improvement in my odds of fighting off or minimizing symptoms if exposed to COVID in the future. While some want to argue the vaccine somehow provides better protection, I’ve seen no reports explaining why this would be the case (let alone documenting that it is the case, whether we can explain it or not). Arguments that you can get sick with COVID again after having been infected with it once are not surprising to me, but the same argument can be used for the vaccine. There are documented cases of people being fully vaccinated and still getting COVID. This doesn’t surprise me either.
  3. Unlike a vaccine, I do not have worries that the antibodies my body created are somehow going to cause other problems in my body in the short or long-term. This doesn’t mean such complications or problems might not occur, but then it is a biological issue rather than an issue of someone else’s manufactured solution being found to cause problems. Articles repeatedly assert that vaccines are safe. What this means is not that the vaccine is safe, but rather that no health or other issues have been found directly related to the vaccine. This is a very different thing than safe.
    1. No organization can reasonably be expected to be able (let alone willing!) to test for every conceivable form of interaction problem or health problem.
    2. Even if such were possible, we would not necessarily be able to properly spot and identify those problems.
    3. While some short-term testing for some easily detectable problems has been done, there are no long-term studies about possible side effects. This is not possible because the vaccines are less than a year old. Despite being assured about their safety, already there have been many questions raised about possible direct side effects (heart issues, stroke issues, etc.) as well as indirect side effects (fertility issues in women, how the vaccine affects younger people and children). It is insulting when someone condescendingly dismisses concerns about safety as though I’m stupid because the vaccines have been proven safe. They have not. They have proven to be free of short-term, easily diagnosed reactions (in most people). We won’t know for years whether they are safe, either in and of themselves or in conjunction with other vaccines and medications.
  4. Science is once again making assertions without any serious attempt to validate or demonstrate why those assertions should be followed. Vaccines stimulate the body to create antibodies to fight off COVID. When infected by COVID the body creates antibodies to fight off COVID. Both create the same antibodies within the body (or do they?). Therefore, to treat the 30 million (at least) Americans who have been diagnosed with COVID over the last year as a health risk makes no logical sense.
  5. Therefore, I am skeptical about other intentions that could be at play here, with science and the pandemic being coopted to serve those ends. Creating a vaccine ID in any form that might be required for access to services or opportunities is a dangerous first step towards a broader system that includes or excludes people not based on their citizenship status or other longstanding criteria but simply based on whether they’ve done something the government wants them to do or not. Anyone with an awareness of history and human nature should be deeply concerned about any such efforts, even when they’re offered under the guise of protecting public health (or perhaps especially when they’re offered as such!).
  6. When scientists tell me something has to happen when science itself would seem to suggest otherwise, I get skeptical. Such reasoning is quickly dismissed in many corners as conspiracy theory stuff, and therefore not necessary to provide an intelligent answer to, or to take seriously. For me (and I don’t knowingly read conspiracy theories), there are two major, very possible (as vetted by history) reasons why science might be employed to push for universal vaccinations even though the science doesn’t support this is necessary:
    1. The vaccines include or do something beyond what the natural antibody response does. In other words, there is more to the vaccine than just COVID antibody instructions, and the important thing is that everyone gets whatever that other element is. Perhaps this wasn’t intended in the vaccine design but discovered afterwards. Or perhaps it was part of the design. This would explain why people who have recovered from COVID and therefore have the antibodies are being ignored or told this doesn’t exempt them from the need for the vaccine.
    2. The government is using this as an opportunity to push not simply for COVID vaccinations but to set the groundwork for a rolling, ongoing system of mandatory vaccinations to whatever is deemed viable. Vaccine IDs would be used ultimately not just for COVID vaccine (or even for just vaccines or health-related issues) but also flu shots and all the other vaccinations currently considered de rigueur as well as any future ones we might develop. Failure to participate in “recommended” programs and actions would flag you, limiting access to services and goods or requiring onerous practices in order to access them. If this sounds far-fetched, consider that California passed mandatory immunization legislation several years ago that mandates immunizations but does not require recipients to be told what vaccines they are being given (note item 11 under Section 1) and allows a state board/committee to decide when to add additional immunizations to the required list.

I’ve yet to see an intelligent response to these concerns either in total or in part. What I typically find in either belligerent dismissals of hesitancy or attempts at empathy boil down to unsupported assertions or fear-mongering. Get the vaccine because it’s a lot safer than the actual virus. The vaccines are safe and questioning that for any reason is dangerous and/or stupid. These are not intelligent answers, no matter how empathetic they’d like to be. They ignore logic, common sense, history, and science itself. A much better response would be a balanced one that acknowledges both what we don’t know as well as all of what we do know. A better response would explain why natural antibodies are not as good as vaccine-induced antibodies. A better response would explain why, if vaccinated people are safe(r), those who choose not to get the vaccine for any reason are not entitled to that decision and the inherent personal risk associated with it, knowing that anyone else at serious risk has more than likely made a similar personal decision to take that risk.

Meaningful and intelligent answers to these concerns would help alleviate my hesitancy regarding the COVID vaccine. They won’t alleviate my concerns about setting up a situation where people are treated as second-class citizens because of a personal health decision. But I think a lot of other hesitant folks would like to see some good solid answers to these questions without being mocked, insulted, or condescended to. Particularly at this point when COVID is decreasing around the world overall (with some exceptions).

I’m fully aware that COVID could surge again. And as many have pointed out, it isn’t likely to ever go away completely. Then again, a year ago that wasn’t the goal of these restrictions and limitations. The goal was to make sure that medical systems and facilities and personnel were not overwhelmed by the small percentage (but large numbers when dealing with millions and millions of cases) of severe cases. Is this still the goal? Is the goal eliminating the COVID virus? Is that possible (hardly). Is it providing universal and complete immunity to everyone (doesn’t seem to be either possible or reasonable). Are there other goals further down the line that aren’t being discussed, and if so, what are they and why not lay them out?

The media could be a big help in this if they actually reported facts instead of distorting the larger reality to focus on worst-case scenarios and exceptions to the rule. All we hear about is deaths or long-term health problems brought on by COVID. We aren’t presented regularly with the overall figures and percentages that help put all of this into a proper perspective, and without that proper perspective people are vulnerable to any number of bad decisions both personally and communally. Ultimately (and long-term) the best protection we have in pandemics is good, solid information and not necessarily just a couple jabs in the arm.

Celebrating Life – Selectively

June 9, 2021

This article headline caught my eye – announcing scientific discoveries of the remarkable resilience of a very small creature. And while the longevity of these tiny creatures as another testimony to the creativity and imagination of our God is worthwhile in itself, it was one particular word in the headline that gave me pause.

Animal.

A living being. One definition of the word says a living organism that feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli. Yet it’s tiny. Really tiny. Too small to be seen with the naked eye according to Wikipedia.

Yet there’s CBS declaring this critter alive and valuable while at the same time promoting news angles that attack the humanity – even the animalness – of unborn human babies. And it made me sad that such language – and the protections that language imply – would be extended so freely and joyfully to one creature, yet denied so vehemently to human babies in a mother’s womb. Science, the new religion of the West, depicted as fearlessly objective in pursuing truth, should be the first voice against abortion. But it isn’t. It’s curiously silent.

Unless you aren’t a threat to current cultural assumptions and assertions – or funding sources.

“How Do You Spell Billiyuns?”

May 21, 2021

Shout out to my all-time favorite comic strip, Bloom County for the title and Carl Sagan for the inspiration beyond that.

Just a little side note to the whole discussion of making vaccines near mandatory, if not by government fiat then by the private market (insistence on proof of vaccinations in order to fly, etc.). There are nine new individual billionaires in the world, executives at major pharmaceutical companies who created and are selling COVID vaccines. The article doesn’t mention how many new millionaires there are related to vaccine production but it seems reasonable to assume there might be more than nine. The article also doesn’t indicate how close these nine people were to the billionaire mark prior to the COVID vaccine production, which I personally would have found relevant and interesting.

I’m not against companies and executives making a profit. I think this is a good incentive to innovate, create, etc. I don’t have definite thoughts on what sort of profit margins are reasonable (like the 30% profit margin the article cites for COVID vaccines). But it does make me itchy when there’s heavy public pressure and possibly even insistence to buy or use a particular product that someone is profiting off of. And I’m sure that 30% profit margin keeps some poorer nations from having access to the vaccines, something some of the companies try to address later in the article by promising 2 billion doses for poorer countries later this year.

I’m trying to think of another situation where people are pushed hard or required to purchase a product or service near universally. Car insurance is the first thing that comes to mind, though I suspect that market is somewhat regulated (does anyone know if this is true?). Still, I could opt not to drive and not have to pay for car insurance then. There are other transportation options available that make this realistic (depending on where you actually live).

Are there other examples that come to mind?

Beyond this, it makes me wonder what kind of pressure comes into play from lobbyists for these companies to keep the vaccine push on as long as possible, including the boosters they are now starting to talk about. Although some people like to talk about just following the science (at least until science says it’s OK to not wear masks if you’re fully vaccinated) reality is a lot more complicated than that.

And a lot more profitable.

You’re Welcome

May 19, 2021

Not that I think Dr. Fauci is monitoring my blog, but it was fascinating today to see articles reporting him saying that boosters – third shots – will likely be necessary for people who have already had their two initial doses. In the ongoing struggle to get good information, we are once again fed confusing and contradictory information.

Vaccine efficacy lasts “at least” six months according to Dr. Fauci. He then goes on to assert it is likely to last much longer. I’ve seen more than a few articles over the last year contradicting him, but I don’t know if those articles were specific to the efficacy in patients who recovered from COVID or those who had received the vaccines. I suspect it’s probably the former since the vaccines have been available for such a short time, but I’m curious about his optimism.

The article links to another article from March 2021 (updated in April), which affirms among other things that six months is the longest timeframe recipients of the vaccines had been studied prior to widespread deployment. The article expresses optimism that antibodies and immunity actually will last much longer, but provides no data to support this other than anecdotal evidence from other mRNA trials and experiments. While I hope the optimism is proved accurate, it still seems pretty early for such leaps. And Dr. Fauci’s statements about boosters make it clear that this is more likely the case.

Still no addressing of those who have actually had and recovered from COVID – nearly 10% of the US population alone – other than to insist they should also get the vaccine without any substantive discussion of the antibodies produced in those who have had COVID compared to those who are vaccinated.

But for now, regardless of whether you’ve had COVID or had vaccines, be aware your antibodies aren’t necessarily going to last forever and you’re going to need to get either full vaccinations or boosters – at least until we know more about what we’re dealing with.

The Other Antibodies?

May 18, 2021

According to the World Health Organization, over 32 million Americans have had COVID. That’s about 20% of the total number of Americans who have received both one vaccine installment and about 25% of the total who have received both installments. It’s a sizable group of people.

Although reliable data has been hard to come by from the beginning, data seems to demonstrate that both those infected with COVID and those receiving vaccinations generate antibodies which are supposed to provide protection against severe COVID symptoms, possibly protection against mild symptoms, and possibly protection against re-infection. Not only that, a recent study suggests that these antibodies gradually disappear from people at about the same rate regardless of whether the person had COVID or was vaccinated against it.

So I find it fascinating that while a major media push continues to urge people to get their vaccinations (both doses) and criticizes anyone who is reluctant or uninterested, there is absolutely no data available for how people who have had COVID may alter their social distancing and mask wearing, particularly in light of the Center for Disease Control’s recent proclamations that fully immunized people can dispense with both masks and social distancing in most indoor and outdoor situations. The CDC site says nothing about whether people who have had COVID can similarly do without masks and social distancing. Perusing the CDC site, you’d be hard pressed to know that 32 million Americans have had COVID, have recovered from it, and have the same antibodies and therefore presumably protections the vaccines are supposed to create.

Information is hard to come by. Some reports make it sound as though the vaccines provide better protection than actually getting COVID, which seems counterintuitive to me but admittedly I’m not an immunologist. There are a lot of TV news snippets that address this topic, and given the short amount of time involved there aren’t any good references to support the assertions.

I was excited to find this article from MIT on the topic, however they assert that it’s possible to get re-infected after you’ve had COVID, implying that this doesn’t happen with vaccinated people. However there have certainly been more than a few anecdotal reports of people still getting COVID after getting both doses of the vaccine. The article references this CDC page, but the information here reads strangely to me as well. Experts are uncertain how long any of the antibodies and immunities last, whether from having COVID or from getting the vaccines, because everything was rushed so quickly they didn’t have time to do longer term testing – something this page at least acknowledges to some degree, while still insisting that despite a general lack of knowledge and understanding, you should still get vaccinated even if you’ve had COVID.

At the very least it would be nice to see more discussion on this. Whether from COVID or from vaccines, it seems pretty certain the antibodies created and maintained after fighting off the infection don’t last forever, and probably aren’t reliably around in adequate numbers as soon as six to nine months after infection/vaccination. Which means that in addition to pressuring people to get their first round of vaccinations, they’re going to need to start ramping up a campaign to encourage people to come back in for a booster. Or two. It will be interesting to see how well this is received, as people begin to realize they’re expected (or perhaps even required!) to receive at least one if not two annual boosters to maintain their antibody levels. Will the emphasis on getting flu shots every year make the idea of an annual COVID booster more palatable? For how long? Are we moving towards a general expectation (or requirement) that everyone come in for a shot every year containing whatever new things are believed to protect us?

Curiouser and curiouser.

A COVID Year

March 17, 2021

One year ago I was driving out of Las Vegas. My buddy had just placed third in the world in his division after a multi-day battle. COVID panic was setting in and already the shelves in Las Vegas grocery stores were bare of many common toiletries, basic medical items, and of course toilet paper and paper towels. I bought the last multi-pack of tissue boxes they had. My wife was texting me from home telling me to keep my eyes open as the supplies were all gone there.

We loaded up in my SUV for the drive home. Not just my buddy and I who had driven out together but another teammate hitching a ride back, as well as our billiards league president and his wife, who didn’t want to risk another night in Vegas and maybe having their flight canceled the next day.

As we left the city limits at dusk there was a storm in the distance to the east over the mountains, with occasional flashes of lightning. A beautiful, complete double-rainbow amazed us all from the same direction. And the radio station dedicated to people on the highway towards and from Las Vegas had their classic rock lineup interrupted so the Governor of Nevada could announce Las Vegas was shutting down. Hotels and casinos would cease all operations in just a few short hours. Everything was to shut down by his order. COVID was upon us and we needed to bend the curve of new cases to ensure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed.

The drive home was pretty quiet. Inside the car we were all disappointed the world tournament was cancelled and none of us got to play in our team events. I suspect everyone was slightly in shock – Las Vegas could just shut down? Just like that? Outside the roads were quiet as well. We passed by deserted truck stops and hotels with empty parking lots.

A year later. My wife and I sit in a pub in St. Louis. Masks everywhere, even though regulations in the City have relaxed in the past week or so. Restaurants can seat people indoors if they maintain social distancing and limit the number of customers they allow in. Back home our county has dropped out of the most severe tier of COVID urgency. Things appear to be easing back towards normality but the news feed is full of warnings of a third wave of COVID likely as restrictions ease and a population exhausted by a year of isolation champs at the bit to get back out and be with each other again. Overseas Europe and Asia are reporting spikes in COVID numbers and renewed and more vigorous restrictions.

None of us thought we would be here a year ago. We hoped and prayed things would go back to normal in a few weeks. They haven’t. And if things keep on at the current rate, normality is a long way off. A new level of fear and paranoia grips people. The airports we flew in and out of barked at everyone to keep their masks on and stay six feet away from each other, but we were seated shoulder to shoulder on the airplanes (masked, of course). Now that the election is history all the news stations seem able to talk about is COVID. News reports are beginning to admit what was obvious all along but nobody wanted to say – the vaccines are an uncertain bulwark against the virus, and even if they function as well as intended, people are going to need to get used to annual booster shots, similar to flu shots. Frankly we’ll be lucky if we only need one booster a year. I’m guessing we’ll be told to get at least two.

The world has changed. Not for the better. You don’t hear much of the ridiculous blather that was pushed early on in COVID, about how we’re all in this together and we’re working together for the good of the people. We weren’t. We aren’t. We’re tired and exhausted. Some people are terrified still and others are throwing all caution to the wind. The toll this all has and continues to take will only unfold fully over the next decade of more, ensuring multiple generations of social scientists of all stripes have plenty to dissect and analyze and hypothesize about. And the list of core memory moments in my lifetime increases from Reagan being shot and the Challenger blowing up and 9/11 to include COVID and a year-plus of trying to be a source of assurance in the midst of chaos, of calling people back to the Word of God that transcends all things, and has itself sustained many, many generations through far worse disasters and atrocities than this.

We are still here. And those with the Word know where we’re headed. May we all have the strength and grace and peace of God to know He’ll bring us there in his timing and his way.

Death – Again

February 16, 2021

I’ve written repeatedly over the years on the topic of how a Christian approaches death and burial (here, here, here, here, and here). I keep revisiting the topic because the topic continues to be revisited in our larger culture. Burial was considered the norm for many, many years. In part because of religious tradition and no doubt in part to simply not having many other options. But these days, options are what people are all about. And as awareness increases of the rather unhealthy amount of chemicals normally used to prepare a body for burial and the amount of space dead people take up, options continue to evolve. Not surprisingly some of these options embrace some rather non-traditional (to say nothing of unBiblical) approaches to creating a palatable way of thinking about death and the great beyond (or lack thereof).

The latest article is here. As opposed to burying, burning, or liquifying the body, this option turns human bodies into compost in the span of 30 days by letting nature take its course, probably with a bit of eco/bio – friendly encouragement. The result is compost, literally. Fit for use in your garden or wherever.

Once again, when I die, I expect my body will decay. That will happen regardless of the particular means by which my body is disposed of. But how my body reaches that state of decomposition and why can matter a great deal, particularly as a Christian who hopes and trusts in the resurrection of the dead, and therefore of the Biblical beauty and dignity and sanctity my human body is imbued with. Unlike many other religions and philosophies the Bible is unilaterally pro-matter. Matter matters, you might say. We are created physical and spiritual beings. Our wholeness exists in the combination of the spiritual and the material. The Biblical picture of life after death is not immaterial or incorporeal but very, very human. Perfected, to be sure, but human – body and spirit.

If you’re interested, a handful of good Biblical reference points on this would include Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, John, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, just to name a few.

As such, I want those who live on after me to know what my hope is. What my trust is. What I look forward to. And therefore what I do with my body as well as why I do it matters. That’s much more what people need to think about rather than the particular means.

What we do generally is associated with a why, though, and we may not control that why. So the composting company has a why to go along with it’s what, a means of helping people be comfortable with the idea of death itself as well as the particulars of their own death and the aftermath. The article references the idea of a giant circle of carbon exchange moving from the universe and into human bodies and back into the universe. Goodness. Am I really just a collection of carbon molecules? Am I not also spiritual and unique from any other person in all of creation? The Bible isn’t clear as to whether a pattern of carbon exchange will end when my Lord returns, but I’d much rather people understood that there’s a Lord who is returning than provide them some sort of psycho-chemistry lesson!

Not surprisingly, the Catholics are the ones objecting to this new body-disposal system, though I’d argue all Christians should object to it. A brief doctrinal statement on this issue can be found here, and does a great job of explaining why Church traditions are more than just traditions, but means of ensuring the proper message is sent and received by those who live on after the deceased.

It may well be possible for someone to choose the compost option and still strongly convey their hope in Christ through their memorial service. But the problem remains that only the people present for that service are going to hear the Christian message. Others who find out about how my body was made into compost are going to assume – rightly so – that perhaps the company’s way of explaining such an option appealed to me and was somehow my belief as well. That would be more than just unfortunate, it would be unfaithful of me to allow that risk.

I’m not a big one for visiting grave sites. I don’t have a personal need to do that. But I do see a value in having a place not just to be remembered, but to remind people that, barring our Lord’s return first, we’re all going to die. How do we live our lives in a way that acknowledges this without obsessing about it or pretending that our death is somehow made better by being ecologically sensitive? My death is transformed by Christ and him alone. Without such hope, being ecologically conscious or not really makes no difference and has no lasting meaning as we’ll all ultimately be vaporized when our sun explodes.

Condemning Without Examination

February 11, 2021

This article is a fascinating example of the importance of analyzing the intent of a communication. What is it the writer or speaker or producer wants to occur in my thoughts or actions after ingesting their work?

The tone of the article throughout condemns the various bans on facemasks throughout Sweden during the COVID pandemic thus far, repeatedly juxtaposing Swedish stances on the issue with the larger body of established evidence. We are to shake our heads at those poor Swedes whose government agencies have failed them during this crisis by communicating inaccurately and ineffectively. We will, rather the author intends it or not (which means they probably do) also likely lament the supposed fate of the Swedes. After all, if their government directly contradicted prevailing medical opinions, was silly enough to even communicate their concerns about the safety of facemasks to the international medical community, and then did a terrible job at communicating the need for facemasks and under what conditions, the average reader would likely conclude that things in Sweden are far worse than places that followed more conventional wisdom and communicated clearly and strongly to require facemasks as protection against COVID.

But while this is likely the inference of the average reader, the article nowhere bothers to confirm this reaction (let alone dissuade it). The author clearly feels Sweden was out of place in the course of action it has taken in downplaying the efficacy and safety of requiring citizens to wear masks. The author certainly substantiates with external links that such a course of action stands in marked contrast to what most of the rest of the world recommends. But the real proof in whether a travesty has taken place or not is whether this decidedly different approach resulted in a pandemic situation worse than those countries pushing mask wearing. In other words, going a different direction can be good, bad, or indifferent based on the results. Or it can be simply dismissed as bad in itself – taking a path contrary to the established norms of the larger group is always bad, regardless of whether what the larger group recommends is actually helpful or not. That’s ultimately what this article leaves you with.

But that’s not necessarily true. It can be. But as a rule of thumb, a guideline to live life by, it can be very dangerous and misleading, and is actually a logical fallacy – an appeal to the majority (ad populum, to use the Latin). Just because more people think something is true – or because a particular group of experts think something is true – does not necessarily mean it’s true. It’s certainly something to take into consideration! But the demonstration of whether they’re right or not must lie somewhere else or in something more than opinion.

So let’s do some research. Sweden has a population of roughly 10,400,000 people. The World Health Organization says there have been just over 604,000 reported cases of COVID, and just under 12,4000 deaths. That pans out to an infection rate of the overall population of about 6%, and a mortality rate of COVID infection of 2%. For comparison, the US has a population of 330,000,000. The WHO reports US COVID numbers as just over 27,000,000 infections and 468,000 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of 8% and a mortality rate of 1.7%. Arguing for any number of mitigating factors like population density and we could generously say that the infection rates are roughly similar and perhaps the mortality rates are a smidge higher in Sweden than in the US.

What about a European comparison? Germany has a population of approximately 83,000,000 people, of whom 2,320,000 have had COVID leading to 64,200 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of not quite 3% and a mortality rate of not quite 3%. Germany’s infection percent is half of Sweden’s but it’s mortality rate is 50% higher. Interesting trade-off.

The United Kingdom has implemented increasingly extremely restrictions and punishments to discourage gatherings and travel and stem the high rates of infection. The UK has a population of 68,000,000, of whom 4,000,000 have contracted COVID and 115,500 have died. That yields an infection rate of almost 6% and a mortality rate of just under 3%.

So it would seem that while Sweden’s advice on health masks has been at times contrary to prevailing ideas on the efficacy of face masks, and at other times confusing to the point of being almost useless, the resulting levels of infections and deaths have not been noticeably higher than those countries that have imposed very harsh restrictions and mandated facemasks in all public spaces (at the very least!).

Perhaps COVID isn’t the best way to examine issues of what and how governments communicate to their people. Or if you’re going to do that, you should focus more exclusively on that rather than implied judgment about whether what was communicated (however poorly) was the right thing to try and communicate or not. I think you could write an article showcasing poor communication skills without also implying pretty heavily that not only was the communication poor, the message was wrong.

Contemplating Failure

January 13, 2021

At what point is it reasonable to contemplate failure? At what point is it reasonable to consider helplessness? Does the post-modern philosophical landscape even permit such an option? Or must everything be a strident, insistent-even-if-delusional declaration of eventual success and dominance?

I wonder this as I watch COVID numbers continue to tick upwards. Our state has been among the most strict in the United States in regards to limiting business operations and attempting to mandate personal behavior. Yet our state has been the media spotlight over the past month for skyrocketing cases of COVID-19, particularly in the greater Los Angeles area.

Nine months of devastating economic restrictions have put who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses at risk of failure. Nine months of unending doomsaying and worst-case scenarios have battered our collective psyches. Masks are the norm now inside buildings. People are literally afraid to get too physically close to anyone they don’t know. A cough or a sneeze sets an entire grocery store on edge.

Yet despite all of these mandates and what seems to be – at least anecdotally – fairly good compliance with them, COVID continues to rage, numbers continue to tick upwards. Case numbers are what catches our eyes. Mortalities are on a far smaller level, though of course no mitigating contextual data is given to determine whether these mortality rates are unusual or unexpected for any sort of respiratory infection. California struggles with a growing case number despite some of the strictest protective policies in the country. Neighboring states where people can still eat at restaurants or have a drink at a bar don’t seem to have as severe a situation.

Is it possible to admit our attempts to outsmart the virus have failed? Is it reasonable to do so? At what point – if any – do we resign ourselves to the reality of a contagion we can’t contain? Are we capable of saying our intentions were good but ultimately of uncertain effectiveness?

Perhaps this isn’t possible to a Western culture where scientism is fast becoming the official religion, where God is presumed dead or non-existent and we are the determiners of our own fates. In a culture where the State is presumed to have all the answers it becomes rarer and rarer to admit that efforts were unsuccessful, let alone misguided. Everything must have a patina of success to it, even if the core is considerably tarnished. We must constantly slap ourselves on our collective back for our ingenuity and resourcefulness and tenacity even if we can’t prove that what we did or didn’t do actually had much of an effect.

My Biblical Christianity, in contrast, does allow for this. Allows for us to do the best we can but also admit that our best efforts may be, definitionally, not only inadequate but misguided and ultimately even, at odds with an authority higher than our own. My Biblical Christianity allows for a world in which we are not the eventual victors by our own efforts, but rather rescued from our good intentions that are fatally flawed and marred by sin, including our ability to admit our inabilities and limitations.

Some might see this as a fatalism of sorts that destroys the importance of striving for better. Historically though, this is obviously patently untrue as Christians have been at the forefront of working to make the world a better place for everyone. Rather than resign ourselves to God’s uncontrollable and largely unknowable divine workings, we rest in his love and grace and forgiveness and take seriously his original commands to us to be caretakers of his creation (Genesis 1:28). Biblical Christianity both conveys the truth that we can and do and should take seriously that we can effect positive changes in the world, but also that there are limitations both to what we are intended to accomplish and what we are able to accomplish. This emphasizes not so much our failures and limitations as the goodness and grace of God. We are forbidden from seeing ourselves as the ultimate authority and therefore do not labor in vain under that burden. Rather we are free to apply ourselves the best ways we can conceive of. It should also mean we are free to admit when our efforts have been incorrect or ineffective without stigmatizing ourselves or others for it.

Perhaps our efforts to contain the Coronavirus have not been successful. Perhaps they’ve even been somewhat pointless. Perhaps rather than trying to keep it from spreading at all we should focus our efforts on protecting those who are most vulnerable while allowing the younger population in work and school to shoulder the difficult but necessary work of gaining some sort of herd immunity that alone will ultimately render the virus less dangerous to everyone.

This is the long-game point of view. I believe it is the point of view of most scientists and immunologists. Someday COVID-19 will be no more dangerous or feared than the common cold or flu. This means it will still be dangerous to a small population group and that will likely never change, but the vast majority of the rest of the population will not be unduly threatened by it. Some experts hope vaccines expedite this process. But we also have no idea whether a vaccinated person who does not develop the symptoms associated with Coronavirus is capable of carrying the virus and infecting other people. We have no idea how long immunization to the Coronavirus lasts, and evidence seems to suggest it doesn’t last more than a few weeks or months at the most. The net result is an approach to the virus that demands fearfulness even when following all the proper protocols.

Perhaps this isn’t the best approach. Perhaps this only draws out the damage a new virus causes not only physically but psychologically and emotionally and socially. I just wonder if anyone is capable of admitting this might be the case and exploring that possibility intelligently, or if any such admission would immediately be silenced as traitorous unless backed with clearly defensible data. I tend to suspect it’s the latter option. In which case I guess the only thing we can do is pray for continued strength and healing even with potentially flawed policies in place. And we can keep an eye on places where alternate approaches are being tried in hopes those prove more successful. And we can continue to speak our truth about our proper role in creation. Caretakers, not owners. Creatures, not gods. We can encourage one another to continue doing our best and we can also consider a variety of options rather than insisting on a single approach.

If the Lord Wills

December 14, 2020

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

I was talking with a friend the other day who cited something I’ve heard floating around a bit the latter part of this year. I’m not going to go see my parents this year for the holidays so that I can see them next year for the holidays. The idea being that because of the risk of COVID and the higher danger to older people more likely to have co-morbidities or weaker immune systems, the responsible thing to do is stay away from them (and have them stay away from everyone else) and then next year we’ll all be healthy and COVID will be gone and we’ll celebrate together then.

I understand the rationale. I don’t fault people for saying it. I know they mean well. And as I’ve maintained since all this started back in March each person has to figure out how to navigate the COVID landscape for themselves within the larger guidelines suggested or mandated to us by various government or health officials.

That being said, I always want to remind Christians to weigh this in the balance with James’ words above. There are no guarantees as to what the future holds, other than that our Lord is returning at some point! We make our decisions with the best available information and as we feel led or compelled to by the information at hand, but that doesn’t mean it will play out the way we hope it will. That’s not in our control. This means two things.

First, it doesn’t mean we switch our brains off and pay no attention to planning or available information or reasonable levels of prudence and wisdom. To say we are not in control is not to say we have no control. It’s just that our control is limited – a fact we dislike and often seek actively to avoid completely in our considerations. Christians who refuse to use the minds God gave them and the knowledge available around us are not being faithful, and those who are not Christian and wish to maliciously characterize a life of faith in Christ as one devoid of intelligence or thougthfulness are being disingenuous, to say the least.

Secondly, it means that Christians should temper our plans for the future with the understanding things are not fully in our control. And this is the important aspect to keep in mind with the adage above about keeping distant now to ensure opportunities to be together when the pandemic has passed. Although a great deal of hope is being foisted onto the shoulders of various vaccines available in various degrees, we don’t know how that will play out.

We can certainly hope that vaccines roll out as scheduled (or faster) function as intended and with similar rates of protection to what has been seen in human trials. But even if this is the case, the likelihood of COVID fears dissipating fairly soon is unlikely. Even if rates drop, the vaccines don’t seem to offer long-term protection from COVID, meaning that additional doses will be necessary to ensure the virus loses access to a large enough spectrum of the population long enough to begin dying out of circulation. That’s likely to take at least another year. It could take longer – we just don’t know. After all, it was just two months ago the media was laughing at our president for claiming vaccines would be available before the end of the year. Now that the election is over, what a shock to find out he had been right. Hmmmm.

Anyways.

That’s all COVID stuff. Ministering to older adults, many of whom have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren they miss dearly and look forward to seeing any chance they get, I know how hard the social isolation has been on them. I also know a fair number of these older adults are taking directions from their kids, and being more careful than they themselves might be left to their own devices. And I also know that things can change quickly as people get into their 70’s and 80’s – more quickly than they or anyone else expect, and sometimes with less advanced warning.

All of which is to say that not seeing your family is no guarantee you’ll get to see them next year, even if none of you contract COVID or have any complications from it. As James reminds us, life is fleeting. All too brief as well as unpredictable. And this at least needs to be discussed as plans (or no plans) are being made for Christmas time.

Again, it isn’t as simple as saying go see your aging parents or grandparents because you may not get another chance to. But it is worth reminding people that life is fleeting, like a mist. Talk about it together. Pray about it together. Make decisions together. Grant a great deal of grace and forgiveness in the midst of all the stress and craziness of this past year. And also take seriously the sovereignty of God in all things, even pandemics. Life is a beautiful gift we don’t have absolute control over but receive day by day as it is given to us without any assurances of the next minute let alone the next year.

You may reach the same conclusions you were inclined to before, but you’ll all be better for the discussion and the prayer and the deliberate inclusion of the faith you proclaim in the process.