Those of us who bemoan the “death of the liberal arts” do not do so simply because the jobs of professors are at stake, but because we believe that liberal learning is the only fit preparation for any portion of life—especially one that involves responsibility for the common good. Those of us who have become “corona skeptics” have done so because our training in the liberal arts has allowed us to see how decisions for the common good have been outsourced by our politicians to “experts.”

The Yale classicist Donald Kagan observed in a 2014 article about Sir James Headlam-Morley, historical adviser to the British Foreign Office in the 1920s, that Sir James had “the only proper training for an expert in almost any field of human endeavor, but especially for the conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy: I mean, of course, Classical Studies.” By “Classical Studies,” Professor Dr. Kagan did not simply have the minutiae of Latin and Greek grammar in mind. Instead he was referring to the broader understanding of history that such studies, pursued in depth, creates. The essay is somewhat sad because Dr. Kagan’s exploration of the prescient recommendations Sir James made is in many ways a history of the rejection of his advice, summarized in the last paragraph:

His remarkably clear vision was powerfully assisted by his knowledge and habit of examining current events in the broader context provided by the intelligent study of history, than which there is no better preparation. Unfortunately, Britain’s leaders lacked both his training and his wisdom, with devastating results. The American State Department has no post for a Historical Adviser. Even if it did, however, I fear they would not hire someone like Headlam-Morley.[1]

Dr. Kagan’s observation is not just true of foreign affairs; it is true of all affairs.

Those of us who bemoan the “death of the liberal arts” do not do so simply because the jobs of Latin, philosophy, and history professors are at stake. We bemoan the death of the liberal arts because we believe that liberal learning is the only fit preparation for any portion of life, especially one that involves responsibility for the common good.

Those of us who have become “corona skeptics” have done so because we have seen how the decisions for the common good have been outsourced by our politicians, including President Trump, whom I support, to “experts.” But Doctors Fauci, Birx, and all the others are only experts in very narrow fields—whose conclusions do not agree with each other quite often.

Yet the determinations of what one political philosopher friend calls an “epistocracy” have been used to make determinations that have put over 30 million people out of work—including a great many of the healthcare workers whom we are supposedly “protecting.” All this on the basis of models of the future and numbers about our present and past that do indeed sound scary.

Numbers, however, are not themselves self-interpreting. Statisticians and tech workers, who have replaced classical historians in our modern world, tend to interpret such numbers in ways that anyone with a half-way decent liberal education would see are faulty. Journalists, who today are much more credentialed and much less educated than their predecessors, go even further astray.

An example from the last few weeks. A new talking point is that in just a few months more people have died from the Wuhan virus than died in the entire Vietnam War, which lasted for years. Scary, no? The journalists perpetuating such arguments—and no, I will not dignify them with links—seem blithely unaware of the many illnesses that kill more people every year than did the entire Vietnam War. This ignorance of reality gets translated down to Twitter users who ask with great rhetorical flourish, “So, when was the last time we had 10,000 people die in a week?!?”

The answer, dear Tweetie Bird, is that every average day in the U.S. approximately 7,700 people die of all causes. In my state, where we are still largely locked down, 123 people die every 24 hours. Our total number of deaths during this pandemic and officially attributed by the state to the virus is 485 as of May 6. In other words, since our first virus death on March 27, in a time in which we might have expected 4,920 deaths, we have totaled the equivalent of three-and-a-half days’ worth of ordinary deaths that have been attributed to this particular illness.

Our state’s lockdown, predicated on “flattening the curve” so that we would not overload our medical system, is still not ended even though the total number of people who have been hospitalized in total (not even in the ICU) during this time has only reached 64% of our state’s ICU capacity (2,200).

Oh, and about those deaths. The state, due to pressure, has finally gotten around to listing on our state health website, how many of the deaths happened in long-term care facilities. Of those 485 deaths, 391 of them have happened there—over 80%. The median age for all virus deaths (regardless of where they happened) is 83. Given that life expectancy in our state is fewer than 83 years, I am tempted to argue that Covid-19 is actually increasing our lifespan.

But I am not a statistician. I am a mere liberal arts graduate. And that would be a dumb argument.

Skepticism about the number of deaths is also something that anyone with a liberal education should have. One Midwestern undertaker recounts going to pick up the body of a man he knew who was suffering from stage four pancreatic cancer. He was surprised to find that the death certificate only listed “Covid-19” as cause of death. This is not limited to the Midwest. James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas released audio of New York funeral directors who themselves believed that the numbers of deaths were padded.[2] To entertain such suspicions as to the padding of figures is now to invite the term “Covid Truther.” I do not see why this is somehow irrational. We have plenty of evidence that cases of dying “with Covid” rather than “from Covid” are now the norm in many states. Illinois’s Department of Public Health director, Dr. Ngoze Ezike, answered a question at one of the state’s pandemic briefings:

I just want to be clear in terms of the definition of people dying of Covid. So, the case definition is very simplistic. It means that at the time of death it was a Covid-positive diagnosis. So that means that if you were in hospice and had already been given, you know, a few weeks to live and then you were also found to have Covid, that would be counted as a Covid death. It means that if, technically, even if you died of a clear alternate cause but you had Covid at the same time it’s still listed as a Covid death. So, everyone that’s listed as a Covid death doesn’t mean that that was the cause of the death, but they had Covid at the time of death. I hope that’s helpful.[3]

It is not hard to see why the temptation would exist on the part of some actors in the medical system to label as many people as possible as dying of the virus, especially Medicare patients who will yield a higher payment under the Coronavirus relief bill.[4] That is the suspicion of several New York funeral directors in the Project Veritas post.

The argument from the other side, that because of the lack of testing, there is probably an undercount of those who died from the virus, is somewhat plausible. After all, in places such as New York there have been deaths in excess of what one might expect over the last few months. This is the burden of many of the arguments debunking such claims. Such an argument is not really a slam dunk regarding the cause of deaths, in part because much of our health system has been shut down for about two months now. Excess deaths might be “from Covid,” “with Covid,” or “Because I didn’t get treated for something else because of the lockdown.”

Indeed, a liberally educated person would view excess death statistics with a number of questions in place about how to assign their cause. Even if we simply take the numbers presented by the state health departments as Gospel, something else emerges that would help us figure out whether our approach has been right. Our Minnesota Department of Health briefings included the interesting admission from our own department of health that of those who have died with the attribution of Covid-19 in our state, not only is the median age in the mid-80s but 99.24% were either in long-term facilities or had significant underlying conditions.[5] This is consistent pretty much across the board, whether we are talking about Minnesota with its slightly more stringent approach to categorizing or New York with, per the funeral directors, looser standards. In Minnesota no one under 30 has died and a whopping 95% of the deaths are over 60, while fewer than 1% of deaths are under 40.[6] 83.4% of New York’s attributed deaths are over 60. Those under 40 make up 1.8% of deaths, including 0% under age 20 and only 0.4% in the 20-29 group. 89.1% of all attributed New York Covid deaths involved contributing factors.[7] The same went for Italy, where a study in March found that 99% of victims had serious contributing factors.[8] So too for Sweden, which has taken a much more sensible approach to this virus. They may have more deaths per million than some surrounding countries at the moment, but 95% of their deaths are over 60 (65% over 80).[9] And the lockdowns were designed to “flatten the curve,” meaning that a similar proportion of people as in Sweden is likely to get the virus and die after the other countries open up.

The reader can go to pretty much any state’s statistics and find the same thing. This is a virus that affects disproportionately the very old and those with severe problems already.

For those who have any sense of the whole, what this means is that the statisticians who continually argue about the incidence fatality rate of the disease, that is, how many people who actually have the disease die from it, are not actually thinking about what the numbers mean. It might indeed have an incident fatality rate that is higher than the flu by several times. But unlike the flu, its effects are not dire for those under 30, and for only a small percentage under 40.

This is good news. My noting so is not, as a friend in the Lock Down Everything camp said, a declaration of “Screw old people.” It is dealing with reality in front of us. The reality is that old people are more likely to die—of this virus and in general. In 2017, according to the CDC’s most recent final report, about 2.8 million people died in the United States. Of these, about 2.2 million were over 65.[10] To say that the deaths from the virus are primarily of old people means that it is not taking those in their youth. This is, one might say, a very gentle pandemic.

It is also a hint at where our priorities should have been in the first place. Instead of locking down most of society, we should have figured out how to keep those vulnerable from getting it.

Instead, we have put 30 million people out of work, endangered a great deal of our health system, caused shortages in our food supply, exacerbated mental health problems for a great many of our citizens (including the isolated elderly), caused a great deal of lost learning opportunities for children who can’t go to school, and caused civic unrest and a new disrespect for lawmakers and the law in a great many states.

We let the cure be worse than the disease. All because we were enthralled by numbers of deaths and possible deaths and did not, like any sensible liberal arts major would do, look at all the factors involved in public policy. A good liberal arts major would ask what the IFR or CFR was, but follow up by asking for a breakdown of who was vulnerable. A good liberal arts major would ask about spikes in suicide rates during depressions and recessions. A good liberal arts major would ask about how we were to keep testing and treatment going for those who were not worried about Covid-19 but about heart disease (647,457 deaths in 2017) or diabetes (83,564). A good liberal arts major would ask what happens to the rule of law and public order when state and local officials issue edicts that shut down their businesses but do not furlough state and local public employees even when they have little to do. Or worse, when they issue edicts that they themselves do not obey—as happened with the mayors of Chicago and New York, among others.

I am all for hiring statisticians and computer geeks who can find the numbers and calculate them. Any statesman worth his (or her!) salt will have other advisers to question the quants and also interpret the statistics in such a way that they do not become the final term in the sequence lies, damned lies, and ________. These advisers should be liberally educated people “with a knowledge and habit of examining current events in the broader context provided by the intelligent study of history.” Optimally they should be from Classical Studies.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Donald Kagan, “A practical use for history,” The New Criterion 38, No. 9 (May 2020).

[2] The video was removed from YouTube because it violated “Community Guidelines”; I found it here.

[3] Vincent Berardi, “Dr. Ngozi Director of public health Illinois. Explains how the COVID-19 deaths are counted .,” YouTube video, 0:47, April 21, 2020.

[4] Michelle Rogers, “Fact check: Hospitals get paid more if patients listed as COVID-19, on ventilators,” USA Today, April 24, 2020.

[5] Scott Johnson, “Coronavirus in One State,” Powerline, April 30, 2020.

[6] Situation Update for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), published by the Minnesota Department of Health, updated May 8, 2020.

[7] New York State Department of Health fatalities statistics can be found here.

[8] Tim Stickings, “99% of patients killed by coronavirus in Italy had existing illnesses, new study finds,” Daily Mail, March 19, 2020.

[9] Sweden’s COVID-19 statistics can be found here.

[10] Kenneth D. Kochanek, Sherry L. Murphy, Jiaquan Xu, and Elizabeth Arias, “Deaths: Final Data for 2017,” National Vital Statistics Report 68, no. 9, distributed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 24, 2019.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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