What does a new “case” of covid-19 mean? (And is it okay to shout “fire” in a crowded theater?)

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In almost every discussion I have had regarding covid-19 and the various governmental responses to it, one of the first issues that comes up are all the inconsistencies and contradictions in what we’re being told and what we’re being told to do.  But before I get into that, I want to look at one other aspect of the covid-19 picture that we in the U.S. are hearing and reading about every day:  the growing number of “cases” being found every day. 

One of William Shakespeare’s most well-known questions is: “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  However, it is also well known that names, words, can and do make a great difference in how we perceive a thing.  The noun “case”, especially when relating to illness/disease is one of these words.  We have to be aware that sometimes a word means something in common usage, and also, within the specialization of one discipline or another, that word may have a particular meaning.  For example, we all know what the common usages of the word “head” are.  Either a body part or possibly the boss, or leader of something.  However, in the Navy, the word “head” can and often does refer to the toilet/WC.  Sometimes it all depends on the context the word is being used in.  The word “case” has some similar usage issues.

In common usage I venture to say we usually think of a “case” as being something that holds something else, like a cellphone case.  Or, when speaking about illness, a case is commonly thought of occurring when someone is actively ill with something.  We’ve all probably heard about someone coming down with a case of food poisoning, or, heaven forbid, a case of cancer.  The fact that someone ate some food which somehow, later, turned up as tainted, means that maybe the person might “come down with a case of food poisoning”, but not necessarily.   With cancer I have heard that at any given time most (all?) of us have some cancer cells in our body, however that doesn’t mean we’re suffering with a case of cancer. A “case” of something commonly means someone is actively suffering, ill, with whatever it is.   The CDC and other public health related people and agencies however, seem to have a different meaning for the word “case” within their technical jargon.  In that usage a “case” can evidently mean simply a positive test result. 

So when we hear about all the new cases of covid-19 turning up, what does that mean?  Does that mean all the people represented by that number are actively suffering from the severe ravages of covid-19, which we’ve heard so much about?  If we’re thinking in common usage terms, the word “case” tends to lead our minds down that path.  However, the reality is that in terms of the daily covid “scoreboard”, it doesn’t mean that at all.  It means more people have been tested and some of the test results are positive.  Kind of like someone eating some food with some unwanted bacteria growing on it.  Does that necessarily meant they are going to come down with a case of food poisoning?   As with exposure to just about every potentially harmful substance on Earth, there a few other variables involved such as the amount of the “dose” of bacteria and the person’s pre-existing state of health.  I think that the robustness of the human immune system is being largely ignored as the covid scenario progresses.  Which brings us back to: will someone who tests positive for covid become ill, develop symptoms?  Maybe. I’m not sure there are any reliable numbers on the relationship between testing positive and becoming symptomatic.  But even if odds are that an infected person will develop some symptoms, as the World Health Organization states:  “COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Most infected people will develop mild to moderate illness and recover without hospitalization.”

At this point I find myself asking, would the daily news have the same quality of sensationalism if what is reported are “positive test results”?  As it is, while typical pornography titillates feelings of lust, what is being titillated by the current media onslaught is fear.  I don’t think it’s inaccurate to call it “fear porn”.  So, imagine the headline:  “Today an additional 1,000 people tested positive for covid.”  After a few weeks, how many people are going to be on the edge of their seats waiting for the latest tally?  But if they say there are 1,000 new cases of covid, especially without any qualifying explanations, our minds, our imaginations, tend to take us down the path of common usage to a forest of doom and gloom, don’t they?  So, are we being misled?  I think so, I think the folks putting the words together know exactly what picture those words are likely to conjure up in the minds of the general public.  However, are they lying?  I think it can be easily argued in a court of law that, no, the health officials are merely reporting the facts as they define them.  And the media is just parroting what they’re being told. 

I think the reporting which is taking place around covid by the mainstream media in the U.S. begs the question: is it okay to shout “fire” in a crowded theater?

Getting back to the matter of the inconsistencies, I probably don’t need to go much further, if you’ve been paying much attention to the claims about covid and the various orders coming from the various levels of government you could probably enlighten me about a few notable inconsistencies.  However, here are a few I’ve encountered:

  • One major inconsistency I’ve heard more than once is that while the State Legislature in Washington State is still meeting online, the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is looking at, at least some, students being back in the classroom.
  • Another I’ve heard a couple times is: if covid is so contagious, why aren’t cities, or whoever, prescribing safe methods, or providing receptacles, for disposing of all the used facemasks and gloves? Personally I’ve seen quite a few discarded masks and gloves on the street or in parking lots.
  • If gathering in large numbers inside enclosed spaces is not okay, why is it okay to shop in large numbers at Walmart and other “big box” stores but not okay to shop in smaller numbers within smaller, local stores?
  • However, one I find most notable is: with all the expressions of danger and concern coming from the CDC, State governments and the Federal government, why aren’t our leaders showing the will and wisdom to use the same medicines and methods which are being used in the countries which have already been able to return to functioning for the most part as they were before the virus showed up?

With all that is at stake, with all the losses, of jobs, homes, and lives that have taken place and will take place around the covid scenario, there possibly has been no time in modern U.S. history in which it is more important for average citizens to be diligently seeking information about the situation facing us from all sources offering such information. Then the task we face is to sort through that information, seek what bits and pieces from the various sources hold up to scrutiny and fit together with other bits and pieces which we have confidence in the reliability of.  We must also factor in motives of individuals or groups which want us to do, or not do, something or another.  Are we “all in this together” or are there winners and losers?  Why?  When a relative few of the richest are becoming richer and millions are losing significantly, when those in seats of power are obviously garnering more power through their manipulations of the situation, there obviously are some personal interests being served.   What’s happening isn’t all about health.  It’s also very much about economics and power.  We should be looking into every nook and cranny that presents itself, then, with thoughtful analysis, we can begin to see the “big picture” of what is actually taking place.  Sometimes we may not like where our own observations and conclusions may take us.  Sometimes the truth is not the reality we want to acknowledge or have to deal with.