Sunday, December 6, 2020

Sweden Tries Not To Go Viral, Con't

Sweden has now officially given up on the "herd immunity" fallacy and is mandating new procedures to stop the runaway spread of COVID-19 in the country.
Sweden’s Covid-19 experiment is over.

After a late autumn surge in infections led to rising hospitalizations and deaths, the government has abandoned its attempt—unique among Western nations—to combat the pandemic through voluntary measures.

Like other Europeans, Swedes are now heading into the winter facing restrictions ranging from a ban on large gatherings to curbs on alcohol sales and school closures—all aimed at preventing the country’s health system from being swamped by patients and capping what is already among the highest per capita death tolls in the world.

The clampdown, which started last month, put an end to a hands-off approach that had made the Scandinavian nation a prime example in the often heated global debate between opponents and champions of pandemic lockdowns.

Admirers of the Swedish way as far as the U.S. hailed its benefit to the economy and its respect for fundamental freedoms. Critics called it a gamble with human lives, especially those of the most vulnerable. With its shift in strategy, the government is now siding with those advocating at least some mandatory restrictions.

When the pathogen swept across Europe in March, Sweden broke with much of the continent and opted not to impose mask-wearing and left known avenues of viral transmission such as bars and nightclubs open, leaving it to citizens to take their own precautions.

As late as last month, Swedes enjoyed mass sporting and cultural events and health-care officials insisted that the voluntary measures were enough to spare the country the resurgence in infections that was sweeping Europe.

Weeks later, with total Covid-19-related deaths reaching almost 700 per million inhabitants, infections growing exponentially and hospital wards filling up, the government made a U-turn.

In an emotional televised address on Nov. 22, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven pleaded with Swedes to cancel all nonessential meetings and announced a ban on gatherings of more than eight people, which triggered the closure of cinemas and other entertainment venues. Starting Monday, high schools will be closed.

“Authorities chose a strategy totally different to the rest of Europe, and because of it the country has suffered a lot in the first wave,” said Piotr Nowak, a physician working with Covid-19 patients at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. “We have no idea how they failed to predict the second wave.”

Last week Sweden’s total coronavirus death count crossed 7,000. Neighboring Denmark, Finland and Norway, all similar-sized countries, have recorded since the start of the pandemic 878, 415 and 354 deaths respectively. For the first time since World War II, Sweden’s neighbors have closed their borders with the country.
Sweden at least has enough shame left to dig their way out of this hole, although they'll be ostracized for months, if not years.  Here in the States, well, we'll be lucky if countries open their borders to us again by 2025.
This could have been prevented.  Republicans at the local, state, and national level chose to "let the weak be culled" instead. And we very nearly handed the country right back over to them.
Never forget that.

Sunday Long Read: The Viral Expert Goes Viral

Our Sunday Long Read comes to us this week from Jane C. Hu over at Undark: a profile of Twitter-centric Harvard-trained epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who has been one of the most prolific voices on social media apprising Americans of the horrors of COVID-19. His critics however -- and he has plenty in the medical science community -- say that he needs to be far more responsible with his rhetoric.

ERIC FEIGL-DING picked up his phone on the first ring. “Busy,” he said, when asked how things were going. He had just finished up an “epic, long” social media thread, he added — one of hundreds he’s posted about society’s ongoing battle with the coronavirus. “There’s so many different debates in the world of masking and herd immunity and reinfection,” he explained, among other dimensions of the pandemic. “We at FAS, we’ve been kind of monitoring all the debates and how we’re seeing signals in which the data goes one way, the debate goes the other,” he said, referring to his work with the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit policy think tank. He rattled off a rapid-fire sampler of hot-button Covid-19 topics: the growing anti-vaxxer movement, SARS-CoV-2 reinfection and antibodies, the body of research suggesting masks could decrease viral load, along with a quick mention of the debate among experts about what “airborne” means.

This whirlwind tour through viral Covid-19 themes felt like the conversational equivalent of Feigl-Ding’s Twitter account, which has grown by orders of magnitude since the dawn of the pandemic. The Harvard-trained scientist and 2018 Congressional aspirant posts dozens of times daily, often in the form of long, numbered threads. He’s fond of emojis, caps lock, and bombastic phrases. The first words of his very first viral tweet were “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.”

Made in January, weeks before the massive shutdowns that brought U.S. society to a halt, that exclamation preceded his observation that the “R0” (pronounced “R-naught”) of the novel coronavirus — a mathematical measure of a disease’s reproduction rate — was 3.8. That figure had been proposed in a scientific paper, posted online ahead of peer review, that Feigl-Ding called “thermonuclear pandemic level bad.” Further in that same Twitter thread, he claimed that the novel coronavirus could spread nearly eight times faster than SARS.

The thread was widely criticized by infectious disease experts and science journalists as needlessly fear-mongering and misleading, and the researchers behind the pre-print had already tweeted that they’d lowered their estimate to an R0 of 2.5, meaning that Feigl-Ding’s SARS figure was incorrect. (Because R0 is an average measure of a virus’s transmissibility, estimates vary widely based on factors like local policy and population density; as a result, researchers have suggested that other variables may be of more use.) He soon deleted the tweet — but his influence has only grown.

At the beginning of the pandemic, before he began sounding the alarm on Covid-19’s seriousness, Feigl-Ding had around 2,000 followers. That number has since swelled to over a quarter million, as Twitter users and the mainstream media turn to Feigl-Ding as an expert source, often pointing to his pedigree as a Harvard-trained epidemiologist. And he has earned the attention of some influential people. These include Ali Nouri, the president of FAS, who brought Feigl-Ding into his organization as a senior fellow; the journalist David Wallace-Wells, who meditated on Feigl-Ding’s “holy mother of God” tweet in his March essay arguing that alarmism can be a useful tool; and former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Andy Slavitt. (“We all learn so much from you,” he tweeted at Feigl-Ding in July.) Ronald Gunzburger, senior adviser to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, even wrote a letter to Feigl-Ding attesting to how his “intentionally provocative tweet” in January “elevated the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the top of our priorities list.”

But as Feigl-Ding’s influence has grown, so have the voices of his critics, many of them fellow scientists who have expressed ongoing concern over his tweets, which they say are often unnecessarily alarmist, misleading, or sometimes just plain wrong. “Science misinformation is a huge problem right now — I think we can all appreciate it — [and] he’s a constant source of it,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University and the University of Arizona who serves on FAS’ Covid-19 Rapid Response Taskforce, a separate arm of the organization from Feigl-Ding’s work. Tara Smith, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Kent State University, suggested that Feigl-Ding’s reach means his tweets have the power to be hugely influential. “With as large of a following as he has, when he says something that’s really wrong or misleading, it reverberates throughout the Twittersphere,” she said.

Critics point to numerous problems. Not too long after his “holy mother of God” tweet, for example, Feigl-Ding took to Twitter to discuss a titillating but non-peer-reviewed paper that some readers interpreted as evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in a lab; once the authors retracted the pre-print, he deleted a series of tweets from the middle of the thread. In March, Feigl-Ding tweeted a CDC graph as evidence that young people were “just as likely to be hospitalized as older generations,” but failed to mention an important detail about the age ranges represented in the graph’s bars, which didn’t actually support that claim. In August, he tweeted his support for a proposition to allow people early access to a vaccine. After criticism from epidemiologists, bioethicists, doctors, and health policy experts, Feigl-Ding deleted a few tweets at the beginning of his thread, saying they were “confusing” and “murky.” (He also argued that his critics were “spreading misinformation about what they think I said.”)

More recently, Feigl-Ding wrote a thread about coronavirus particles in flatulence, which drew criticism from researchers.

Even when his public exclamations are technically accurate, Feigl-Ding’s critics suggest that they too often invite misinterpretations. In a thread about the first study of a Covid-19 outbreak on an airplane, for example, Feigl-Ding failed to mention the important caveat that researchers suspected all but one case occurred before people got on the airplane. In another, Feigl-Ding appeared to summarize a Washington Post piece on a coronavirus mutation, but omitted crucial phrases — including the fact that just one of the five mentioned studies was peer-reviewed. It wasn’t until the sixth tweet in the thread that Feigl-Ding mentioned the important detail that the “worrisome” mutation doesn’t appear to make people sicker, though it could make the virus more contagious.

To Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia University virologist, this represents a pattern. “[T]his is his MO,” she wrote in an email. “He tweets something sensational and out of context, buries any caveats further down-thread, and watches the clicks and [retweets] roll in.”

Such critiques of Feigl-Ding’s particular brand of Covid-19 commentary are by no means new, and previous articles — in The Atlantic as far back as January, for example, New York Magazine’s Intelligencer in March, the Chronicle of Higher Education in April, and in The Daily Beast in May — have explored questions about his expertise in epidemiology (his focus prior to Covid-19 was on nutrition) and whether his approach to public health communication is appropriate or alarmist. But as his influence has grown, and as the pandemic enters a much more worrying phase, critics have continued to debate whether Feigl-Ding, for all his enthusiasms, is doing more harm than good. Some complain that Feigl-Ding’s army of followers can be hateful when other scientists publicly disagree with his tweets. Others say that Feigl-Ding himself has been known to privately message his critics — a tack that some found unwelcome.

For his part, though, Feigl-Ding says many of his critics’ disagreements with him have come down to a difference in style. “Sometimes it’s a matter of a philosophical approach about tone: Should I say ‘whoa’ or ‘wow?’” he said — adding that he thinks of those words as a type of “subject line” for a tweet. “Some people don’t like the all-caps initial thing, but it’s more of a stylistic thing. And of course, some people think: ‘This tweet is sensational.’ I’ve heard that,” he said — adding that, indeed, he has contacted critics, but always in a professional capacity. “I [direct-message] a lot of people,’ he said, “sometimes email them when I have a question.

“We have spirited debates,” he added.

I can see both sides of the argument, lord knows the baseline we're working with here is an orange idiot who lies about the virus to the point where tens of millions are purposefully laboring under false information. But the experts are saying that Feigl-Ding gets himself in way over his head, and that sometimes being that smartest guy in the room explaining to the masses gets you in trouble.

Believe me, I know. 

Have multiple sources of information, is what I'm saying. And if you don't have the expertise to judge for yourself, listen to the people who do.

Our Little White Supremacist Domestic Terrorism Problem, Con't

As hate crime expert and author David Neiwert explains, Trump's Proud Boys brownshirts are gearing up for terrorist insurrections during the Biden administration...if Trump doesn't tell them outright to start a civil war to keep him in power.

It's become apparent that, even as Donald Trump tries to deny reality and continue claiming he won the election, the hate group that he ordered, on national television, to "stand back and stand by" now considers (per leadership's statements that "standby order has been rescinded," as well as other threatening statements on social media) those orders null and void: The Proud Boys are now playing the role of Trump's goon-squad defenders in the streets—and appear unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Following the initial burst of Proud Boy violence in Washington, D.C., during and after the "Million MAGA March" of November 14, the familiar black-and-yellow polos, red MAGA hats and thug tactics have been showing up on the streets of Raleigh, North Carolina; Sacramento, California; and Staten Island, New York. At each event, brawls broke out amid overheated rhetoric, much of it in Trump's defense.

The violence follows the pattern established over the previous four years—right-wing extremists organizing gangs of out-of-town thugs from rural and exurban areas to invade liberal urban centers on vague political pretexts in order to engage in threatening acts of intimidation and provoke violence that they can then blame on "antifa" and the "left." And as with all those events, the Proud Boys' presence has been to act as street enforcers for a variety of far-right causes: Denouncing the election results, protesting about COVID-19 public-health measures, or whatever else might be the right-wing grievance du jour.

Mostly, it's about creating fear and violence on behalf of a white-nationalist agenda. That's what the Proud Boys exist for, and it's why the Southern Poverty Law Center lists them as a "general" hate group.

All during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Proud Boys have been whipping up a sense of public intimidation at the liberal cities where they hold rallies while spreading conspiracist misinformation about the virus, its spread, and the government orders intended to fight it. These appearances have been part of the Proud Boys' steady drumbeat of bringing the politics of thuggery to American cities throughout 2020, as the Institute for Education and Research on Human Rights has mapped out in detail, for a variety of ostensible causes.

In Raleigh last weekend, Proud Boys came out to protest North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper's pandemic-related business restrictions, particularly those on indoor gatherings. Calling it a "Pilgrims and Patriots Thanksgiving in Raleigh" event, organizers with Reopen Carolina joined arms with the Proud Boys and a Latinos for Trump group at the state Capitol. Then, as usual, they proceeded to provoke brawls with counterprotesters who held an event called "Racists Out Of Raleigh."

There were no fights, since police kept the two sides separated assiduously. So the Proud Boys turned their thug tactics to the press who came to cover the event, including a reporter for the Indy who they harassed. Their report describes it:  
A man in a Proud Boys bandana kept the INDY reporter from recording speeches by putting his hand in front of the camera, while others around pretended to sneeze. A woman in a white tank top and MAGA hat also told the reporter to leave. This happened a second time once the group was back at the Jones Street corner; this time, the man who had been blocking the camera told the reporter, "we can ask you to leave, or we can make you leave."

Proud Boys also showed up at another COVID-related protest in Staten Island—this time outside Mac's Public House, a tavern that had recently been busted for offering food and drinks beyond a 10 PM cutoff time mandated by New York City officials. A large, entirely maskless crowd gathered outside the pub on Wednesday night to protest the charges.

Inside the pub, there were chants of "Proud Boys in the house." According to the New York Post, a speaker also led a Proud Boys chant: "I am a proud Western Chauvinist." Afterward, they segued into singing Queen's "We Will Rock You."

According to The Sun, protesters blamed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for the pandemic measures, with signs reading "Dictator Cuomo." One protester shouted at cops through a megaphone: "Where is your backbone? Where is your morality?"

The event in Sacramento had nothing to do with COVID-19, but instead was entirely a protest of the election results, and an insistence that Trump won the election—and heavily populated by Proud Boys and their militia cohort. One of the Proud Boys told the crowd that the organization's role was to defend "people like you that come out to rallies."

As Capital Radio reporter Scott Rodd observed, those were hollow words: 
But the Proud Boys also played the aggressor. CapRadio observed one Proud Boy take a swing at a member of the press for filming him. Other members, after the demonstrators returned to the barricaded area near the Capitol, remained outside the perimeter and instigated counter-protesters and passersby. Several chased after one counter-protester. Some also followed and taunted observers from the National Lawyers Guild.

By day's end, multiple brawls had broken out, and police—who declared an unlawful assembly and issued a dispersal order—reported one arrest on "assault-related charges."

Reporter Gabe Stutman of Jewish Weekly was also present, and watched as, after their rally speeches ended, "they spilled into the streets of downtown Sacramento, chanting 'Whose streets? Our streets!' and 'F*ck antifa!' while butting up against police cordons that blocked their path. The demonstrators exchanged insults and threats with roughly a dozen people identified as part of antifa ..."

Stutman notes that "each protest has followed a similar pattern," one familiar to reporters covering Proud Boys events elsewhere: First, a peaceful demonstration with speeches in a public space, followed by a march into downtown or other urban areas with the intent of brawling with counterprotesters—or, for that matter, anyone who shouts at them or protests them.

I expect this plan to change rapidly from harassment to open acts of violence, and that change is going to come in the next few weeks when Biden is declared the victor at the Electoral College later this month.

An Atlanta state senator has asked for police protection after people posting on conservative social media said she should be killed over her participation in hearings on Thursday about unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud pushed by supporters of President Donald Trump.

State Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat, said she was shaken after being informed that her home address and other personal information had been distributed online and some posted in a social media thread that she should be killed.

A thread on one far-right internet message board posted photos of Parent captured during Thursday’s hearings, misidentified her as an election worker and asked users to vote on what the appropriate form of punishment should be. The most common responses called for sexual violence to be committed against Parent and/or her execution.

“It’s really scary and very strange because I didn’t do anything that I wouldn’t have done or haven’t done in any other hearing for these years I’ve been a senator,” she said.

Parent said she was working with law enforcement and the lieutenant governor’s office to secure additional protection at least throughout the weekend. DeKalb County police told her they would increase patrols near her home.
The violence reminds me of a quote:
“Oh, but you must travel through those woods again and again... said a shadow at the window... and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time...

But the wolf... the wolf only needs enough luck to find you once.”
--Emily Carroll, Through The Woods
The wolf is going to get lucky very soon.
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