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Panic among the pigeons

Moral intoxication, like the physical variety, is regularly followed by a hangover

March 17, 2020

2:32 PM

17 March 2020

2:32 PM

Life is a risky business. Danger is everywhere. In New York, even the pigeons are a threat. A friend recalled a graduate school class in which he was told that some 20 people each year die from diseases contracted from pigeon dung. Twenty people! Why hasn’t Mayor de Blasio confiscated all the pigeons? Banned people from walking on the same streets where the pigeons congregate? Enforce a regimen of ‘social distancing’ among the birds?

As of this afternoon, there are about 5,000 reported cases of the Wuhan flu in the US. Ninety-five people in this country have died from it. Ninety-five. Twenty-five of those, more than a quarter of the total, are associated with one place, the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, a long-term, critical care facility. Most of those who succumb to the disease are over 80 and have a variety of other ailments. Nevertheless, CNN, possibly the single most irresponsible faux-news organization in the country, described the Wuhan flu as a ‘pandemic, unprecedented in modern times’.

Really? In 2009, the H1N1 virus infected more than 60 million in the US, resulting in some 270,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths. So far this year, there have been at least 22,000 fatalities from the common or garden variety flu. Estimates offered by the CDC for US fatalities from the flu go as high as 50,000. Fatalities include young and old. No one under the age of 10 has died from the Wuhan flu.

spring sale

Nevertheless, the entire country — nay, the world — is in a state of panic over this latest Chinese import. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have effectively shut down. Governors, aspiring tyrants that they are, have ordered restaurants, bars, clubs, and ‘non-essential’ businesses (non-essential for whom? For the people who work there?) to close for — well, sometimes it is for a matter of weeks, in many cases ‘until further notice’.


In San Francisco — always a leader in malign fatuousness — Mayor London Breed announced that the city will ‘legally prohibit residents from leaving their homes except to meet basic needs including visiting the doctor, or buying groceries or medicine, until at least April 7’. At least, Kemo Sabe. Maybe, out of ‘an abundance of caution’ — a favorite phrase offered to justify this insanity — maybe she will decide to extend the prohibition until May or July or December. Out of an ‘abundance of caution’, anyone caught outside will be shot with pigeon dung.

I am tempted to make a collection of the notices now flooding my email inbox from various organizations and businesses announcing that they are closing. Most are not simple bulletins. Rather, they are nauseating declarations of moral enlightenment and fine feeling. ‘In the interest of public health and the health and well-being of our staff,’ reads one, ‘effective Wednesday, March 18, we are requiring all staff to work remotely through at least April 6.’ Requiring, you see: that’s an order! At least until April 6. Maybe forever. ‘In the interest of public health,’ forsooth.

Tucked into the flood of commentary about the Wuhan flu is intermittent mention of Farr’s Law. I wish more people would absorb its lessons. First formulated by the British epidemiologist William Farr in 1840, it states that epidemics, like so many thing in life, develop and recede according to a bell-shaped curve. This happens with or without human intervention.

The good news is that we are now well advanced on the far side of the bell curve globally. New cases of the Wuhan flu peaked at about 4,000 new cases a day in February and have been declining since. Why must we all assume this decline is temporary?

The question is: does Farr’s Law apply also to moral panics and self-righteous displays of preening irrationality? I do not know the answer to that, but it certainly is true that a febrile state of emergency cannot long be maintained. People grow tired of it. The routines of everyday life reassert themselves, especially in the absence of fresh provocations. The major provocations we will face will not be medical but economic.

A modeler at the CDC speculated that the Wuhan flu might infect 214 million people in the US and leave 2.4 million dead. My bet? A few hundred or so fatalities nationwide, clustered heavily among those who are old and ailing.

The great question is this: how long until people wake up to awful truth of this Wizard of Oz scenario? There is no malignant demon behind the curtain. Only CNN commentators and megalomaniacal mayors. How long until people realize that the real crisis is not the disease but the panic? — a panic, by the way, that is assiduously fed by a disgusting and unaccountable media and orchestrated by equally disgusting and power-hungry politicians who think they can close businesses and order people not to leave their homes with immunity.

Those actions have stripped trillions of dollars from the stock market, shuttered countless businesses, ruined an untold number of lives. And for what? For the pleasure of being head girl at Roedean and being able to order people about and pretend that you are more moral than the ordinary folk whose lives you are busy crushing.

As I noted elsewhere, moral intoxication, like the physical variety, is regularly followed by a hangover. But the symptoms are not nausea and a headache but shame at one’s credulousness and rage against those who exploited it. In this case, the rage will be fully justified.


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