Corona’s “Dark Number”

This piece is not about the many dark numbers in these Coronaic times; those related to health, sickness, death and loss of income. This piece is about the singular dark number of Corona: what percentage of the population actually has been infected? There is a lot of biopower in the unknown of that singular number. A lot has been philosophically made in the abstract about the (after) Corona times. This piece starts from the very concrete as that is where the critical power of philosophy is best and most usefully articulated.

Three tenets seem to be self-evident in current-day discourse: we, layfolk, have to follow ‘the’ science, the supreme value at issue is that of health and the experts in all this are the virologists as the gatekeepers between science and public health. Whilst, contrary to far right Presidents and their usual supporters, this makes for a good entry strategy as the known numbers indicate, this equally risks us to get into an awful exit strategy, some taste of which we may find in a dictatorial regime like China. Why this is so is explained below with reference to Corona’s Dark Number.

That there is no such thing as ‘the’ science is already clear from the initial reaction to the crisis. Where some countries quoted the experts as allowing a more permissive strategy so as to quickly achieve ‘herd immunity’, the experts of other countries counseled forms of lockdown strategies premised on avoiding an all-out health system crisis. It turned out that the latter strategy was the right one given the specific facts of this virus but it should not blind us to another fact: the matter was settled in large part by political pressure that followed the crash of the health system in Northern Italy. This pressure, for instance in a country like Belgium, led to a quick closure of schools against a then predominant advise of local virologists. This pressure undoubtedly corresponded to the reaction of laypeople, who felt unease with the cold calculations of herd immunity strategies. So much for this simplifying view of ‘the‘ science and the irrelevance of lay opinions on setting an agenda.

The key unknown for this entry strategy already was Corona’s Dark Number. If COVID-19 were to have followed the model of a specifically dire influenza, there would have been no need to go above and beyond the normal hygienic advise in orde to ‘flatten the curve’. Indeed, the percentage of infected people would have spiked naturally to fall again with no specific challenge to health systems. However, without even getting a chance of doing the measurement of this percentage, it was soon clear that Corona infection rates and/or its mortality rates were in fact posing such a specific challenge. This left all the neoliberal right in a tail spin from their original ‘economy-first’ to an ultimate ‘health-first’ message. Again, this no doubt had a lot more to do with laypeople’s views than only with the views of the virologists whose models drew abstract curves lacking a concrete key value for the Corona Dark Number. Without that number there’s no telling where we are on the curve, nor in fact whether the peak we achieve is much lower than the one we would expect in a model of transmission under standard hygienic conditions. The real evidence that we – in fact – flattened the curve is the theoretical consideration that lockdown can’t but have this effect (viruses teletransport as little as human beings do).

All that said and done, it was clear the entry strategy needed to be one of extraordinary hygienic measures i.e. some form of lockdown. That conclusion derived from laypeople – and consequently political – pressure together with general knowledge of human beings as viral vectors, not about any specific knowledge on Corona (not even from China!). This position – notwithstanding some futile attempts by technological optimists (or as they like to call themselves somewhat ironically: realists) – had two important consequences: this was a biological health crisis that could only be curtailed by wielding a low-tech political power and every country had to curtail it based on its own health system parameters. As such the Corona Dark Number went really dark because the only room remaining was to tackle the immediate urgencies (ICU beds, protective gear, …). So much for the science of the modeling which became nothing else than the ‘curve’ metaphor (a model without any real baseline number). It is of value to note that this also meant that, rationally, the many different countries would have many different entry strategies based on their healthcare systems and their populations spontaneous adherence to normal hygienic standards. The usual criticism of, for instance, European unity was, as it usually is, perfectly irrational – as the only facts with which to tackle the crisis are country-specific facts instead of virus-specific facts.

Anyway, enter biopower. Suddenly, health was the only variable and virologists were the only ones with the requisite expertise to protect it. Or so it seems, because (to allow me a little overt philosophy) what is public health & what is expertise? Is health biological pure and simple or does it include happiness? Is it about leading the good life or is it just what can be measured as surviving for as long as biologically possible? Nuances are lost in the thick of panic because there is no time to look for a golden middle between biology and – for instance – autonomy. So the World Health Organization and its narrowly Hippocratic interpretation prevailed: this was about minimizing any risk of illness and that could be achieved only by driving new infections to zero. The Corona Dark Number was from now on simply besides the point. Whatever it takes! Forget the virologists originally thinking about group immunity (and there were many who did this without any of the neoliberal or right wing stupidities that come to the fore in the herd immunity concept) – there was only one number that was significant and it was 0. The Dark Number went really dark. It now was an all-out war against the virus and fear spread that anybody could die so every body should worry about contracting it (instead of merely worrying about infecting this specific group known to be a risk population). People snapped into the zero-risk attitude and so became their own gatekeepers, such are the ways of biopower! This answers the question on ‘what is expertise?’ as well. It is not finding serological fact or fitting a curve, a theory, to empirical measurements; no – it is managing emotions in view of a supreme value: biological health. We are all reduced to viral vectors now.

This means that there is only one exit strategy left. The number 1 specifically appeals to biopower. Because in ‘whatever it takes’ the whatever includes things which we took for granted outside of, for instance, China (or a more nearby example: Hungary). Enter again technological optimism (most wil emphatically defend it as simple realism) by embracing the notion of ‘contact tracing’ by which we can ensure we can guard the zero by guarding each other. The problem here is not privacy. That will just be a rearguard fight to occupy our critical attention whilst a new reality sets in: we are all individually responsible for a zero-risk health strategy. implemented via strict self-monitoring under peer pressure. It’s easy to see biopower as some kind of Dr. Strangelove-managed conspiracy but it simply is not. Biopower operates independently of politicians even if, for sure, a ‘smart’ politician will enlist it to serve their own goals. Biopower is ensuring that there’s only one standard (of health) to live by, and that such a standard is appealing enough to root out (or at least: make suspect) any difference. The result of this can be seen in China already: no news of dissidence, restrictions on freedom of movement enforced by local party officials and the general availability (and acceptance) of state surveillance. If you think this can’t happen in our Enlightened regions, just listen to what some self-declared Enlightened politicians declared about increasing police surveillance in our societies.

This is why we need to shed light on the dark number: it will provide us with at least one other exit strategy. The number two is enough to break the spell of biopower. Instead of each country managing its own ‘stay at zero-risk’ policy (thereby restricting movement in and between countries), we can work towards a joint end goal: achieving, in a controlled way, an infection rate sufficient to protect the weak without needing to wait for the fancy high tech solutions we are so addicted to. Will this be easy? No, it will be at least as hard as the initial lockdown was. But the reward will be that we can avoid the new normal as set by China and we can do it based on our own actions  – just like we flattened the curve itself based on our own actions. What we need for this is simply to measure this Corona dark number. If it is, as a lot of evidence suggests, closer to 30% as to 10%, there is a real opportunity for absorbing this blow once and for all and be done with it. We know that it is a virus, that it is a slow-mutating virus and that therefore immunity should carry us to a point where it is reduced to the effect of current-day influenza. The problem is that – as long as the Corona dark number remains dark – we’re left in limbo with only the one exit strategy which is not an exit at all for the virus but only an exit out of life as we know it – so my question simply is to measure it. That, in and of itself, would break biopower as it returns us to a plurality (of experts, of exit strategies, of rational and critical thought, …).

On twitter I did a poll on whether or not people would be willing to cooperate in the low-tech way towards group immunity by adding your individual immunity at your own risk for the improvement of group immunity i.e. basically a collective reward. I expected that a comfortable majority would do as they did during the lockdown: take the personal hit to improve the general good but the results were much tighter than that. I fear this is the result of building an individualized, internalized fear that blocks seeing alternatives. As I argued above, that would be a very bad thing indeed which makes it all the more urgent to measure how many people do have Corona antibodies as this is the only number that’s possibly going to interact with that emotion in order to produce an outcome which is not the outcome taken by China.



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