John Derbyshire Is Still A Coronavirus Agnostic, But He’s Wearing A Mask
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[Adapted from the latest Radio Derb, now available exclusively on]

I know you're all on tenterhooks waiting to hear what Radio Derb, the civilized world's most authoritative source of news and opinion, has to say…about what we should call the current flu pandemic!

Wednesday our President squashed a distraught snowflake reporterette at his news conference:

 Snowflake:  "Why do you keep calling this "the Chinese virus"? There are reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese-Americans in this country. Your own aide, Secretary Azar, says he does not use this term. He says ethnicity does not cause the virus. Why do you keep using this? A lot of people say it's racist."

President:  "Because it comes from China. It's not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that's why. It comes from China."

But while indeed the virus originated in China, it’s become a world-wide concern due mainly to the reflexive lying and thuggery of the Chinese Communist Party. So it would be a bit fairer to the great mass of Chinese people, who don't want the filthy thing any more than you or I, to call it "the ChiCom virus."

In fact, since the Communists still revere the guy whose portrait looks down across Tiananmen Square, we could be even snappier and just call the virus "Mao Flu."

But as the virus is unlikely to kill as many people as Mao did—estimates start at forty-five million—that would be unfair to the virus.

People are still arguing, though. There is a considerable movement afoot, led by the World Health Organization, to stop naming diseases and pathogens after places, and to re-name those that have customarily been so named.

The guardians of our culture are hard at work on this. Neocon Never Trumper David Frum will rap you across the knuckles with a ruler if you refer to the 1918-19 pandemic as "the Spanish Flu" even though, as his Twitter followers documented devastatingly, he’s done so himself:

This is petty, low-grade stuff—evidence that the horrid plague of Political Correctness has done far more damage to our minds than this current virus will to our lungs. The Babylon Bee caught the absurdity of it all with their suggestion that we start referring to the Black Death as the Death of Color.

They didn't offer an alternative for Yellow Fever, and perhaps that's just as well.

OK, OK, so what are we going to call it? The virus causing all the trouble is named SARS-CoV-2. The condition it causes in those afflicted is named COVID-19. But I don't see much sign that "COVID-19" is catching on in ordinary talk. People mainly seem to just say "coronavirus." That's a bit loose, as the villain here is just one member of the coronavirus family.

So what happens next? I’m still agnostic. The reason it's hard to tell: We're working with a poor and debatable quality of data, from which all kinds of contradictory things can be deduced.

There don't seem to be any international standards for data reporting, either. Germany's reporting a mortality rate of 0.3 percent. Italy's reporting 7.9 percent. Wha?

So I open my Friday New York Post and it tells me there are 5,645 cases of coronavirus in New York State [Here is what's happening now in New York's coronavirus fight, by Bernadette Hogan, Julia Marsh and Aaron Feis, New York Post, March 20, 2020]. My state has a population of 19½ million, so that would be point zero two eight percent and change—something like one in thirty-five hundred.

That doesn't seem too bad at all…except that the number is meaningless without context.

Hoo-kay: 5,645 people were tested and found positive. But out of how many tested altogether? If all 19½ million of us were to be tested, what would the number be then?

And what, by the way, is the rate of false positives?

The whole area of testing for the virus is an embarrassment. The CDC and the FDA, given the task of creating and distributing tests, went at it with all the efficiency and finesse of the proverbial monkey trying to get intimate with a football [Coronavirus: US is failing on testing, says Fauci, BBC, March 12, 2020]. South Korea tests ten to twenty thousand people a day; the U.S.A. tests two thousand on a good day [U.S. Lags in Coronavirus Testing After Slow Response to Outbreak, by Larry Buchanan, K.K. Rebecca Lai and Allison McCann, NYT, March 17, 2020].

The testing fiasco has generated a small genre of op-ed columns by people describing their efforts to get tested, usually without success. Journalist Tim Herrera had a good one in the New York Times Wednesday: My Coronavirus Test: 5 Days, a Dozen Calls, Hours of Confusion [March 18, 2020]. Herrera was one of the lucky ones, being in New York City with half a dozen first-rank hospitals nearby. Still it took him hours working the phone, getting bounced from one healthcare drone to another.

The previous Wednesday Herrera had woken with symptoms—cough, fever. He called his doctor's office. They gave him the number of a clinic doing tests. He called the clinic. No, they weren't doing tests. Could they refer him to someone that was? No, they couldn't.

He called New York City hospital system and was put on hold. Meanwhile his girlfriend called the CDC. They got back first, took his details, and said someone would call to check later. Nobody ever did. Then the hospital system called back. They took his details all over again, told him to quarantine for two weeks, and hung up…but later they called back with a test date for the next day.

Herrera got his test at last; but the results were posted online, which they shouldn't have been, and late. (They were positive, but he seems to be recovering).

Recognize our healthcare system? It sure sounds familiar to me. In my February Diary I narrated the time-wasting fandango I had to go through just to get the right co-pay on a routine medication.

We all quickly got used to the jargon. "Social distancing" was the order of the day. We had to "flatten the curve." That's the curve you get if you plot number of infections day by day. Do nothing and that curve soars upwards, overwhelming your medical facilities. By social distancing—minimizing our contacts with other people—we get a much gentler upward curve, allowing medical facilities time to catch up.

That's what we've settled on: social distancing to flatten the curve. Was it inevitable that we should? Might we have taken some other course of action?

Certainly we might. One of the interesting features of public conversation this past couple of weeks has been the healthy skepticism expressed by many commentators. reported an example: Heather Mac Donald's March 13th piece at the New Criterion. Here Heather is scoffing at the fuss about rates of infection being exponential.

Even if my odds of dying from coronavirus should suddenly jump ten-thousand-fold, from the current rate of .000012 percent across the U.S. population all the way up to .12 percent, I'd happily take those odds over the destruction being wrought on the U.S. and global economy from this unbridled panic.

Compared To What?

In the same spirit, in a good thoughtful piece about the public appetite for risk and the quality of our scientific leadership, Dennis Saffran retails a quote from New York State Senator Vincent Graber, in a debate on related issues:

We could really reduce the death rate if we lowered the speed limit to 21 and raised the drinking age to 55.

Prepare, Don’t Panic, March 13, 2020

It hasn't been just journalists, either. Constitutional Law Professor Richard Epstein did a good quantitative analysis of the data, such as it is, on March 16th at the Hoover Institution website. Sample quote:

Even though self-help measures like avoiding crowded spaces make abundant sense, the massive public controls do not. In light of the available raw data, public officials have gone overboard.

Coronavirus Perspective

What's that you say? None of these people are credentialed epidemiologists? OK, here’s John Ioannidis, professor of medicine, of epidemiology and population health, of biomedical data science, and of statistics at Stanford University:

The data collected so far on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable…Three months after the outbreak emerged, most countries, including the U.S., lack the ability to test a large number of people and no countries have reliable data on the prevalence of the virus in a representative random sample of the general population.

This evidence fiasco creates tremendous uncertainty about the risk of dying from Covid-19. Reported case fatality rates, like the official 3.4 percent rate from the World Health Organization, cause horror—and are meaningless.

A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data, March 17, 2020

Professor Ioannidis' piece got a polite, collegial rebuttal from Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard—I quoted some previous comments of his in my February 28th podcast. Prof. Lipsitch, responding to Prof. Ioannidis

There are two options for Covid-19 at the moment: long-term social distancing or overwhelmed health care systems.

We know enough now to act decisively against Covid-19. Social distancing is a good place to start, March 18, 2020

So…we have a leaky, dubious mass of data and a wide range of opinions from thoughtful analysts, including specialists. What are we supposed to do with that?

What you and I do with it is of course up to us as individual citizens. I'm very lucky here. I live in a spacious outer suburb of New York with my wife and son, never have to get close to anyone else at all. My wife works from home three days a week, and that's just been extended to four. My son's a college student; but classes are suspended. He fills his time quite happily working out at the home gym, playing computer games, and chatting on the phone with friends.

So the Derbs are well-nigh self-quarantining. I wash my hands a lot and avoid touching my mucous membranes. For trips to the drugstore I wear a mask—I bought a big supply back when the whole thing started. I eat sensibly and exercise: Basil gets a 45-minute walk every day, on the vague superstition that viruses don't like fresh air. We pass other dog-walkers at ten feet distance, waving in a neighborly way.

I've cut back on consumption of ardent spirits in accordance with Kipling's advice to the young British soldier:

When the cholera comes—as it will past a doubt —
Keep out of the wet and don't go on the shout,
For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,
    An' it crumples the young British soldier.
        Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier …
[Bursts into song]
        Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier,
        Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier,
          So-oldier OF the Queen!

Sorry, I always get carried away with Kipling.

Other people seem to be coping sensibly in the face of massive dislocation and inconvenience—worst of course in the cases of those laid off from their jobs. This category may include our own daughter; we're waiting to hear.

But what are our politicians, legislators, and administrators doing with it?

They’re following the social distancing / flattening the curve paradigm.

It looked for a while as though the British government might take a different tack, just letting the virus burn through the population fast, creating a big mass of people gifted with immunity by having had a mild case. Then a report by a panel of experts came out modeling the consequences of that nine ways to Sunday [Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand, Imperial College, March 16, 2020]. The consequences were all terrible. The Brits turned on a dime and are now social distancing and flattening the curve with the rest of us.

That was the choice our leaders faced: drive the economy off a cliff, or…geezers on gurneys.

The best advice our leaders could get was: either do a full-court press on social distancing, or face scenes of hospital parking lots filled with hundreds of geezers on gurneys, coughing their lives away because we don't have the staff or equipment to deal with them.

Given the likelihood of that appalling spectacle, you can't blame our leaders for what they are doing.

Will it prove in the end to have been unnecessary? Shall we have crashed the economy for nothing?

Possibly. The underlying data here are, as I've said, iffy.

Among all the unknowns here, the scariest, it seems to me, are long-term. What happens in the fall?

If we can get a handle on things these few weeks, then the warmer weather causes the virus to quiesce, with maybe just a mild resurgence in the fall, we'll be able to ride out the economic consequences and get the economy back on track in a year or two, as we did after the 2008 Crash.

On the other hand, if the virus comes roaring back in the fall, perhaps in some variant form, then it'll be: Katy bar the door.


John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

For years he’s been podcasting at Radio Derb, now available at for no charge. His writings are archived at

Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire's writings at can do so here.


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