Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after; so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late: the jest is over and the tale has had its effect. – Jonathan Swift (1710)

Reports are circulating now (April 2, 2020) that the Covid-19 virus was noticed in Wuhan a month before local authorities finally informed the national government, which then declared the emergency to the world and undertook drastic measures to contain the outbreak starting on January 23, 2020. Doctors in Italy also say they noted unusually severe cases of pneumonia in the autumn of 2019. There is a large number of Chinese garment factory workers who travel between Italy and China, so this could have been the source of infection. It seems only sensible to assume that the virus was circulating for a few weeks or months before it was noticed as a unique threat. However, no theories about earlier infection can be backed up by any kind of retroactive testing because there is not yet an antibody test that could be used to find people who were exposed weeks or months ago but then recovered. Nor could there be any test to see who died at these earlier stages of or with Covid-19 in cases that were attributed in official statistics to other causes of death. These reports, however, are strong circumstantial evidence that could support the conclusion that Covid-19 was widespread in some areas well before January 2020.

vacant beach in LA
Hermosa Beach is all but empty days after all beaches and parks were closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. 
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This may explain why Japan was so reluctant to carry out testing until just recently—until the decision was made on March 24, 2020 to postpone the Olympics. Suddenly, the next day, the media started reporting fifty to sixty new cases each day, but these are still only the cases of people who come to clinics and hospitals with troubling symptoms. The government is still reluctant to do random testing of the population to find out how widespread the virus is. Perhaps they have known for a while that it has been widespread for months, or they believe the tests are unreliable. During that time they just treated severe pneumonia cases the way they treat them every year, and no one was the wiser. The number of deaths during the winter season of colds and influenza may have been no higher than in previous years. It might have even been lower because of all the precautions citizens have been taking. By making efforts to avoid catching Covid-19, they managed to avoid catching influenza as well.

If Covid-19 was spreading in Japan as early as November, Japanese people may have built up some herd immunity without even knowing it. This may explain why there has been no shocking crisis of people dying in large numbers, as in Italy. Japanese people are generally healthier, the air is not as polluted as in northern Italy, and the health care system has better capacity to deal with a sudden increase of patients.

Whether Covid-19 was present in Japan in late 2019 is an important question, socially and individually. I’ve been wondering why no one in my family, neighborhood, and circles of friends and colleagues has become ill in the past few weeks (Feb-March, 2020). Perhaps it’s a big secret when someone has a fever and many have quietly recovered with an implicit don’t ask-don’t tell policy in force. But everyone around me actually seems healthier from all the extra rest and fresh air they are getting.

And then I remember what my life was like in November and December, 2019. I ride a commuter train every day which is also an express train between Tokyo and Narita Airport. The number of tourists from Asia coming to Japan had been growing steadily for about ten years, and it really seemed to be at its peak in the autumn of 2019. The train was full of tourists morning and evening, with their big suitcases taking up spaces usually occupied by standing commuters. There was palpable tension in the air between the regular commuters and the tourists.

And the daily flights from Wuhan kept coming and going until mid-January.

In November I was afflicted with my usual pollen allergies, and I noticed at that time a lot of my students had colds. There were more absences, and more of them coming to class puffy-eyed, wearing masks, and dragging a roll of toilet paper they grabbed from one of the university washrooms. I recall especially one class with few students where I was sitting in a close circle with them around a desk. One young woman had swollen eyes and was sneezing and grabbing tissues constantly. She apologized at one point and said she had never had such a bad cold. But she came to class because that’s what people used to do. No one thought much of it. No one stopped going to school or work because of a little sniffle. But it was after that that I caught a cold too. I woke up one morning and realized this wasn’t just allergies anymore. The headache and fatigue were new symptoms, and the congestion was much worse, but I didn’t have a fever. That same week I tripped over something in the dark and cracked my rib. I got through the rest of the semester by swallowing a cold medication that included decongestants, caffeine and ibuprofen.

By the end of the semester, the absentee rates were higher than usual, and several students came back to class with official slips from clinics saying they had been diagnosed with “influenza.” This happens every year, but there was definitely an increase in December 2019.

I recovered from the cold and my rib healed, and I got back to my fitness routine. My lung capacity was fine when I was cycling at my usual maximum speed, but I noticed I would dry cough a little during the ride. It was strange, but there was no strain on my lungs.

My family members all got through this cold season with minor symptoms, and we have all been healthy since then.

I went through this experience in blissful ignorance of a dangerous new corona virus that might be out to get my sixty-year-old lungs. I didn’t have to worry that I might die, or feel angry at all the sick people who didn’t stay home and the visitors who kept coming from Wuhan. Now I feel grateful about that, fairly sure that my family had Covid-19 before anyone knew what it was, and that we, and millions of people around us may have antibodies for it.

I could be wrong, and I could be dead by the end of the year, so I am taking all sensible precautions. My story is just an anecdote, but I know there are millions of others with similar concerns. Was the Covid-19 virus spreading for several months before the danger was recognized? This is just one of many questions we need to ask…

  1. Have the testing instruments been rushed into production without being verified?
  2. How many false positives and false negatives are these tests producing?
  3. Will the same questions need to be asked about the tests for antibodies, when they become available?
  4. How many strains of the virus are there? Where are they, and are they equally lethal?
  5. How much herd immunity already exists in various locations? Will immunity be lasting?
  6. Why are governments not offering advice on nutrition and ways to strengthen immunity?
  7. How do multiple variables account for the wide disparity we see in different countries in levels of harm caused by infection? Some of the suggested variables are:
  • Demographics—more elderly people in some countries.
  • Decades of exposure to air pollution (see previous post).
  • Exposure to electromagnetic radiation.
  • Exposure to radiation from medical testing, nuclear test fallout, and living close to nuclear power plants, abandoned uranium mines, fracking wells and the nuclear weapons manufacturing complex.
  • Long-term exposure to tobacco smoke.
  • Diet: vitamin and mineral deficiencies, exposure to agrochemicals and food additives, fat, sugar, salt, overeating, lack of exercise.
  • Chronic diseases: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, immune disorders.
  • Long-term exposure to stress.
  • A traumatized population. Many people have had adverse childhood experiences that created permanent damage to the HPA axis (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis)—the brain’s and body’s stress response system. This system can also dysfunction later in life, in a less serious way, from chronic stress.
  • National vaccination programs—previous vaccinations may be helping people during corona virus infections.
  • The neoliberal political and economic agenda shrank the health care system in many countries, leaving it unable to cope with a sudden need to adapt to an unprofitable epidemic.

In a couple years when the comprehensive studies are complete, I predict they will conclude that in the worst-hit places, this was a perfect storm caused by several variables. It will be a story of a stronger-than-usual corona virus that had catastrophic effects when it met with a weakened health care system and an aging, unhealthy population that had been breathing badly polluted air for thirty years. When it was just the virus itself going through a population that didn’t have these negative factors, the effects could have been managed by mitigation (promotion of sensible precautions, isolating vulnerable people) rather than suppression (quarantine, travel restrictions, closed borders, closure of businesses and schools).

Charles Dickens captured the zeitgeist of his moment, didn’t he? A Christmas Carol was a condemnation of capitalism, wasn’t it? The Ghost of Christmas Future was neoliberalism visiting upon the present to warn people what happens when you financialize the global economy and you do 300-400 years’ worth of consumption today—Christmas being a holiday of consumption, losing its significance as a soulful, spiritual occasion—and here we are. We’ve all been very, very naughty, and we’ve all been sent to our room. And we’re all sitting in our rooms now thinking about what we did. This is a moment of self-reflection for the global community. Sit in your room and think about what you’ve done. Max Keiser, Keiser Report, Episode 1521, 01:38~.

8. Is the information pandemic (the infodemic, as it is being called) literally causing people to scare themselves to death? Psychic shock really can kill. The heir to the Hawaiian throne, Princess Ka’iulani, died of pneumonia at the age of twenty-three, eight months after the US Congress voted, in an outrageous breach of international law, to annex the Hawaiian Kingdom. In the case of Covid-19, we have to ask if fear is making the disease more contagious. We know that stress weakens the immune system, and many people were already dealing with trauma from their past experiences. Related to this is this question: To what extent is the Covid-19 pandemic a sort of conversion disorder or mass psychogenic illness? According to the AAFP:

Mass psychogenic illness is characterized by symptoms, occurring among a group of persons with shared beliefs regarding those symptoms, that suggest organic illness but have no identifiable environmental cause and little clinical or laboratory evidence of disease. Mass psychogenic illness typically affects adolescents or children, groups under stress and females disproportionately more than males. Symptoms often follow an environmental trigger or illness in an index case. They can spread rapidly by apparent visual transmission, may be aggravated by a prominent emergency or media response, and frequently resolve after patients are separated from each other and removed from the environment in which the outbreak began. Physicians should consider this diagnosis when faced with a cluster of unexplained acute illness.

In the case of Covid-19 there is an identifiable environmental cause, but it is plausible that the panic induced in people with symptoms of infection is a cause of worse symptoms. Such people might not have developed worsening symptoms if they had been blissfully ignorant of the news that this could be a fatal disease—if they had not been exposed constantly to news and images of people dying on ventilators in Intensive Care Units. Never before during flu season were we shown such images, even though it happens all the time. Would people be better off believing that this is just a cold and 99.9% are going to recover?

9. Why is the World Health Organization reacting so differently this time? In 2009, they decided that travel restrictions for H1N1 were not necessary, and that was a pandemic that caused 150,000 to 575,000 fatalities worldwide. No one blamed Obama for those deaths. The WHO also estimates that 250,000 to 500,000 people die of seasonal flu annually. The WHO stated then:

The pandemic influenza virus has already spread around the world. There is no scientific reason to delay international travel to reduce spread of infection. The global public health response now focuses on minimizing the impact of the virus through prevention measures, more equitable access to appropriate medical care, and help to countries as they prepare and implement their public health plans.

This shows that at that time they decided on mitigation rather than the suppression that is being done now. As of April 1, 2020, Worldometer has these statistics for Covid-19: cases 858,669, deaths 42,151, recovered 178,099. This is a 4.9% rate of death based on figures that are guesswork because there must be millions of undetected cases and deaths that can’t be attributed to a single cause. It is conceivable that careful mitigation, rather than strict suppression, for the remainder of 2020 could allow the total deaths to remain well below the total of 150,000 to 575,000 attributed to H1N1 in 2009. How afraid were you then about touching a doorknob, traveling or of dying from influenza?

US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said that influenza has, in his expert estimate, a 0.1% mortality rate. His best estimate for Covid-19 is 1.0%, a rate ten times as high as that of influenza. He also said the virus is much more infectious than influenza, which would mean that it is already widespread to an extent that is unknowable, so his estimate may have no basis. We don’t know how many people have recovered with no symptoms or few symptoms, but if it is a high number, it would make the fatality rate fall below 1%. Other experts are saying numbers ranging from a 0.1% to 4% fatality rate, so how is anyone supposed to know what is true? 1% just seems to be a nice round compromise between 0.1% and 4% (it’s ten times more than 0.1%, but only 1/4 of 4%). It is as if the experts get together and haggle over the numbers as if they were setting a price for something, which in a sense they are doing. Even in the reports made about H1N1 influenza in 2012, three years after that pandemic, it was stressed that the extent of the pandemic could not be confirmed by lab testing:

WHO has acknowledged for some time that official, lab-confirmed reports are an underestimate of actual number of influenza deaths. Diagnostic specimens are not always collected from people who die with influenza; for others, influenza virus may not be detectable by the time of death. Because of these challenges, modeling is used to estimate the actual burden of disease.

Another thing no one mentions about the elusive rate of death number is that it is not inherently connected to the virus itself. The rate of death will depend on medical interventions, social policies, criteria for deciding cause of death, and the health of populations, as well as the way the virus evolves over time. In other words, it will never be known with certainty.

Yahoo News reported on March 28, 2020:

“The numbers are almost meaningless,” says Steve Goodman, a professor of epidemiology at Stanford University. There’s a huge reservoir of people who have mild cases, and would not likely seek testing, he says. The rate of increase in positive results reflect a mixed-up combination of increased testing rates and spread of the virus. We will need more complete data, smarter data and more coordinated data to communicate something meaningful about the extent of Covid-19 in the United States… Though death rate figures of around 1% have been tossed around, Goodman says he’s skeptical that anyone knows the death rate of this disease since we don’t know the true rates of infection.

Independent journalist James Corbett described the political manipulation of the incomplete statistics in a twenty-one-minute video he published on March 31, 2020 from which I present this highlight:

… epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who created the highly cited Imperial College London coronavirus model which has been cited by organizations like the New York Times and has been instrumental in governmental policy decision-making, offered a massively downgraded projection of the potential death toll on Wednesday. Ferguson’s model projected 2.2 million dead people in the United States and 500,000 in the UK from covid-19 if no action were taken to slow the virus and blunt its curve. The model predicted far fewer deaths if lockdown measures such as those taken by the British and American governments were undertaken… After just one day of ordered lockdowns in the UK, Ferguson is presenting drastically downgraded estimates, crediting lockdown measures, but also revealing that far more people likely have the virus than his team figured. So, in other words, they were basing their model projection on completely bogus numbers. They didn’t know what they were talking about, and after the lockdown that they were advocating for went into place, they said, ”Oops, we kind of got that wrong. Well, anyway let’s continue the lockdown” …. Hype, hype, hype the crisis as much as possible… and then once that happens you can backtrack a little. Or better yet just implant that idea in the minds of the public: 2.2 million Americans are going to die. Half a million Brits are going to die of this unless we lock down, and a few months from now when 2.2 million Americans are not labeled dead from the coronavirus… they’ll be able to say, “See! The lockdown worked,” regardless of whether or not there was anything behind these projections in the first place, and now they’re admitting that in fact there is nothing behind them.

10. How many families will be broken? How many lives will be lost because of bankruptcy, unemployment, homelessness, addictions and other mental and physical diseases arising from these disruptions? How much is the higher unemployment going to diminish the power of labor to get higher salaries and better working conditions? In previous pandemics, the cost of suppression was recognized as too high. What is different this time? Is it a sign of moral progress that we are unwilling to accept fatalities from pandemics? Perhaps the Covid-19 virus presents a much greater threat than previous pandemics. The hospital workers who have seen the damage in ICU’s in Italy and various American cities are terrified by what they have seen. Nothing written here is meant to be a denial of the real danger posed by this virus. I’m not suggesting it’s all a grand hoax. But assuming the suppression ends up being justifiable, what equally drastic measures will be taken to help people affected by the social and economic consequences of this suppression of viral contagion?

11. Will neoliberalism and capitalism take advantage of this crisis to create more inequality? Will they exploit this health crisis to hide the economic crisis that was going to happen in any case? I don’t believe that conspirators created this crisis of viral pandemic that is “just like the seasonal flu” (as some have alleged), but it is certainly a crisis that could be exploited, now that it is here, for anti-social purposes. Will the super-rich go on a buying spree of all the distressed assets that are being created by suppression of economic activity?

12. Will the WHO, national governments and citizens demand equally drastic measures to eliminate chronic illnesses and toxic environments that kill hundreds of thousands of people each year? Can we react to long-term and chronic threats to the wretched of the earth as well as we have reacted to this immediate threat to lives in developed nations?

13. Will there be massive bailouts and social programs for individuals this time, rather than for banks and corporations, as was the case after the 2008 crash? This crisis has made it painfully clear that the truly essential workers—the people expected to put themselves at risk of infection—are the same people who are usually dismissed as “unskilled” and worthy of only poverty-level wages.

14. Can I ask these questions without being equated with the deplorable people who seem to be cheering for a culling of the population—those who have called the virus the “boomer remover”? I’m a sixty-year-old late boomer myself. I emphasize that mitigation methods stress protecting the vulnerable.

15. Will this Covid-19 event lead to a revolution or transformation of our political economy? I leave the last word to Dr. Denis Mukwege, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate:

This epidemic shows the limits of the system that our generation has created—a system that has thought only of economics and the race for quick profit, at the expense of the social and concern for others—a system that has completely lost sight of certain values such as solidarity, has disdained social investment and constantly “thought globally” to seek the cheapest possible labor at the ends of the world—a system where the public hospital was considered the fifth wheel of the cart when it should have been considered the bulwark of society. Who could have imagined that patients from a rich society could die in front of doctors who were helpless and forced to make horrible choices? Who would have thought that in the 21st century, people would be left to fend for themselves in institutions for the elderly, without even being given a burial? All this was unthinkable just three weeks ago. So I hope we learn from this pandemic that the world after the coronavirus will not be the same, that humanity will be able to return to being human beings, that the concepts of equality, dignity and empathy will be rehabilitated.

Source: Le Nobel Denis Mukwege : en Afrique, « il faut agir au plus vite si nous voulons éviter l’hécatombe » Le Monde, 2020/03/28 (Nobel Laureate Denis Mukwege: In Africa, “We must act as fast as possible if we wish to avoid catastrophe.”)

Additional sources, added April 9, 2020:

Zachary Evans, “U.S. Intelligence Warned of Coronavirus Outbreak as Early as November: Report,” Yahoo News, April 9, 2020.

Caitlin Conrad, “New study investigates California’s possible herd immunity to COVID-19,” KSBW TV, Salinas, California April 8, 2020. “The hypothesis that COVID-19 first started spreading in California in the fall of 2019 is one explanation for the state’s lower than expected case numbers. As of Tuesday, the state had 374 reported COVID-19 fatalities in a state of 40 million people, compared to New York which has seen 14 times as many fatalities and has a population half that of California… ‘Something is going on that we haven’t quite found out yet,’ said Victor Davis Hanson a senior fellow with Stanford’s Hoover Institute. Hanson said he thinks it is possible COVID-19 has been spreading among Californians since the fall when doctors reported an early flu season in the state. During that same time, California was welcoming as many as 8,000 Chinese nationals daily into our airports. Some of those visitors even arriving on direct flights from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China. ‘When you add it all up it would be naïve to think that California did not have some exposure,’ said Hanson.”

Justin Huggler, “Many people may already have immunity to coronavirus, German study finds,” The Telegraph, April 9, 2020: “Scientists studying the town at the epicentre of Germany’s first major outbreak said they had found antibodies to the virus in people who had shown no symptoms and were not previously thought to have been infected. Initial results released on Thursday suggest as many as 15 per cent of the town may already have immunity—three times as many as previous estimates. The findings suggest the mortality rate for the virus in Germany is just 0.37 per cent—five times lower than current estimates.”