March 25, 2020

1. The Katz Plan

The Katz Plan says that we shouldn’t keep everyone at home to defeat the virus. We should only isolate the elderly and vulnerable; the rest of the population can go to work, go to school, etc. The Katz Plan says we don’t want a cure that’s worse than the disease. Most people recover from the virus quickly, and after recovering, they probably have some immunity to it.1 If you try to suppress the virus completely, few people become immune to it, so it can return in the future.

I call it The Katz Plan because it was put forward by a Yale doctor named David Katz. Katz says, “I am deeply concerned that the social, economic and public health consequences of this near total meltdown of normal life — schools and businesses closed, gatherings banned — will be long lasting and calamitous.” Thomas Friedman saw Katz’s essay, and wrote a column about The Katz Plan.

Then Trump seemed to get wind of the plan, and tweeted, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15 day period, we will make a decision which way we want to go!” According to the Wall Street Journal, “An administration official said the White House is discussing targeting guidelines for social distancing at vulnerable groups, such as requiring the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions to take greater precautions than younger, healthy people.” Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett also embraced a strategy that resembles The Katz Plan.

The Katz Plan can also be called The Herd Immunity Approach, since it says that if lots of people become immune, the virus can’t spread, the “herd” is immune. The Katz Plan was considered by the United Kingdom before Katz’s essay appeared. If too many people get the virus at the same time, the medical system could be swamped, so you’d want the virus to spread gradually, you’d want “herd immunity” to develop gradually.

If Trump embraces The Katz Plan, he probably couldn’t force all the governors to embrace it, so there might be different strategies at the same time.

2. No Apology?

Pretend you made a fire in your fireplace, then went for a walk. When you came back, the fire had burned down your house, and the houses of ten neighbors. Wouldn’t it be appropriate for you to apologize to the neighbors, even if it wasn’t completely clear what had caused the fire?

In the case of the CoronaVirus, which started in China, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the Chinese government to apologize to the world, and to its own people? An apology isn’t just contrition, it could also be an occasion to propose steps for dealing with the current situation. The world is owed an apology, in my view, because the Chinese didn’t monitor their animal markets closely enough, and didn’t deal with the virus effectively once it started spreading.

I’m not suggesting, however, that Trump (or any other leader) ask China for an apology — that would fan the flames of discord. The Chinese have a deep-seated nationalism, so they’ll probably never apologize, and they certainly won’t apologize if a foreign leader asks them to apologize.

* * * * *

The news from Asia is somewhat discouraging: a second wave of cases has appeared in Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. — places where it seemed the virus had been defeated. But this second wave is smaller than the first, and society is better prepared to deal with it, so it’s probably not a serious danger.

The news from Italy is encouraging: the number of new cases may be declining. This may indicate that the tide is turning, the lockdown is having its intended effect.

On March 14, I wrote, “It seems unlikely that deaths from the CoronaVirus will top 15,000.” On March 23, the number of deaths roared past 15,000; many of these deaths were in Italy and Spain.

3. Larry Brilliant

Larry Brilliant is a leading expert on pandemics.2 In the 1970s, Brilliant was part of the team that successfully eradicated smallpox. He calls the smallpox effort, “this amazing success story, the only disease in history to be eradicated.” The formula for eradicating smallpox, Brilliant says, was “early detection, early response.”

In 2009, Brilliant was optimistic about polio: “With only 1,500 cases in the world last year, [polio] may soon follow smallpox into the dustbin of history.” (In 2018, there were just 33 cases; in 2019, about 125 cases, all in Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

The surveillance system for polio, Brilliant says, was 4 million people going door-to-door, checking for polio, trying to achieve “early detection, early response.” Now it’s possible to do surveillance by crawling web pages, and looking for reports of fever, famine, etc. Brilliant says that surveillance is done best by private organizations, rather than governments.

When asked about the CoronaVirus, Brilliant said, “The best case is that the virus mutates and actually dies out.” A mutation that makes a virus less dangerous isn’t unusual. “Only in movies do viruses seem to become worse,” Brilliant said. (Brilliant was an advisor for a 2011 film called Contagion, which has become popular in recent weeks.)

In 2009, Brilliant published an essay about the danger of a pandemic. “We might be entering an Age of Pandemics.... The risks of pandemics only increase as the human population grows, the world loses greenbelts, uninhabited land disappears and more humans hunt and eat wild animals.” Brilliant said that the British scientist Martin Rees “offered a $1,000 wager that bio-terror or bio-error would unleash a catastrophic event claiming one million lives in the next two decades.”3 Brilliant said that even a minor pandemic would cost the world $1 trillion (one wonders what the cost of the CoronaVirus will be).

According to Brilliant,

Most pathogenic viruses that affect humans have originated in animals and jumped to humans; for that reason, we call them “zoonoses” ....Some of these diseases are well-known: bird flu, SARS, HIV/AIDS, West Nile, Monkey-pox and Ebola.... If sub-Saharan Africa is the hotspot for blood-borne diseases, the Mekong area bounded by China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia is the hotspot for respiratory diseases like SARS or pandemic bird flu.... We are concerned that the nation and the world do not have adequate “early warning” or bio-surveillance capabilities.

When the CoronaVirus first appeared, China downplayed the danger, and silenced the doctors who were trying to raise an alarm. The WHO played along with China, saying there was no evidence of person-to-person transmission.

2006 TED Talk by Brilliant
2009 essay by Brilliant

4. Thomas Hart Benton

In the last issue, I discussed the American artist Rockwell Kent, who was born in 1882. Another American artist, Thomas Hart Benton, was born in Missouri seven years after Kent. One of his ancestors had represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate, and his father had been in the House of Representatives.

As a young man, Benton was serious and ambitious, determined to make a reputation as an artist. A friend said that he never smiled. Short and feisty, he reminded people of a bantam rooster.

In 1922, Benton was teaching art in New York City. He married one of his students, an Italian immigrant named Rita Piacenza, and the marriage lasted until Benton’s death in 1975. They had two children.

The Benton family spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard. Benton painted in the daytime, and made music with his family in the evening. “Benton was an accomplished harmonica player who invented a form of written notation to transcribe classical compositions for harmonica.”4 Below is Benton’s painting of his daughter Jessie:

Below is a photo of Benton and Jessie:

Another of Benton’s art students (in addition to Rita) was Jackson Pollock. Pollock toured the West with Benton, and visited Benton’s home on Martha’s Vineyard.

Benton made many trips around the U.S., sketching as he went. He’s known for his depictions of American life.

The above image of a soda fountain is part of a mural, City Activities With Dance Hall, now owned by The Met. Benton is known for large murals, crowded with figures. Below is his mural Joplin at the Turn of the Century:

In the 1920s, “Benton declared himself an ‘enemy of modernism’; he began the naturalistic and representational work today known as Regionalism.”5 Other representatives of Regionalism are Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.

After World War II, Benton felt that small towns had lost their character, so he turned to nature. He made numerous canoe trips.

Ozark Reflections, by Thomas Hart Benton

By the time he was 60, Benton was a well-known painter. “The artist’s life is the best in the world,” Benton said, “if you can get through the first 40 years.” Benton’s autobiography, An Artist in America, is well-regarded. Sinclair Lewis said, “Here’s a rare thing, a painter who can write.” I recommend Ken Burns’ 90-minute documentary on Benton, which is available on Amazon Prime.

Benton worked diligently at his craft, and died a few minutes after completing a painting. Rita seemed lost without him, and died a few months later.

© L. James Hammond 2020
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1. “Prof. Jon Cohen, emeritus professor of infectious diseases at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said ‘ is very likely, based on other viral infections, that yes, once a person has had the infection they will generally be immune and won’t get it again. There will always be the odd exception, but that is certainly a reasonable expectation.’” back
2. “Larry Brilliant” is his real name, not a nickname like “Johnny Football.” back
3. In 2003, Rees published a book called Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century? In the U.S., Rees’ book was published with the title Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century — On Earth and Beyond.

Though Brilliant was pessimistic in 2009, in a 2013 TED Talk, he expressed optimism, due to the growth of early-warning systems. back

4. Vineyard Gazette back
5. Wikipedia. I prefer Rockwell Kent’s paintings to Benton’s. Rockwell Kent’s paintings give me an immediate feeling of pleasure/beauty, whereas Benton’s paintings often seem weird, twisted. Benton’s figures are often elongated, perhaps because he was influenced by El Greco. back