• Japan in the Slow Lane

    May 5, 2023 // 1 Comment »

    If you are one of the handful of people who really miss 2020, you’d do well to head to Japan as I did, a land where time stood still.

    Everyone here (and by that I mean every single person and most children) wears a mask against the seemingly omnivorous threat of Covid. Yes, it is still here, or so we are told even before arrival where to obtain an e-visa one has to upload proof of vaccination and answer a strict list of questions, any one of which could end your trip plans should you answer “yes.”

    The law (or is it social pressure? No one needed to do much to encourage Japanese people to be somehow even cleaner, and there are no Karen-sans here, they’d have nothing to yell about) requires masks everywhere all the time indoors, but almost everyone wears one inside and outside. Businesses are prepared to lend you a paper version should you have forgotten yours (no one has yet) and character-decorated cloth types go for about $10 in drug stores and the kind of random products stores Japan’s current economy seems based on.

    In addition to masking, signs everywhere admonish you to keep social distance in public places. It makes sense in waiting areas where every other seat is blocked off with a sign but less so on the trains and subways where a full-body rub seems to come with the ticket. That it makes no sense makes no sense, except when you realize sensical change is not what Japan is about.

    The joke is in 1985 Japan looked like the year 2000, the future. Today, on a visit in 2023, Japan still looks like the year 2000. Not much changed along the journey. If someone remakes Bladerunner the future it would seem is based on a proliferation of escalators and expansive seating/waiting areas in bank lobbies. Those building-sized video screens the L.A. of the future featured in Bladerunner no longer serve up hot geisha girl images but a silver haired couple video chatting with their stock advisor about holding instead of selling for another month.

    Japan is getting too old. The child crisis which began in the go-go 1980s when having kids would have interfered with making money and taking expensive foreign trips has come to fruition, or rather anti-fruition: Japan is on the path to extinction. A third of Japanese people are over 60, making Japan home to the oldest population in the world, after somehow Monaco. It is seeing fewer births than ever before. By 2050, it could lose a fifth of its current population. That figure is closer to a reality than an estimate.

    You would think such a dire situation would provoke change and in almost any other nation on earth you’d be right. But Japan does not like change and so there are no campaigns (as in Singapore) to encourage marriage, and follow-on campaigns to encourage having children. Day care is still as expensive as it is to come by, and “having someone else raise your kids” is still a stigma. Working mothers are seen as desperate (their husbands obviously a failure) or selfish.

    The most obvious answer, immigration, is shunned. The fear of foreigners runs deep in Japan. “Why not admit some foreign IT people? Some senior care nurses from the Philippines?” I asked one educated Japanese. “Well, they’d stay here and this would slowly not be Japan anymore.” Barely three  percent of the country’s population is foreign-born, compared to over a quarter of Americans. Thoughts on race are common enough you’d hate to label some gigantic portion of the country racists. It is the way it is, most would say, shikatta ga nai, nothing can be done. Japan does not care for change.

    Covid is in a way a made-for-Japan disease, a solid excuse to slam the doors to the country shut without heaps of international scorn. At the height of the Covid mania, even foreigners with permanent residence in Japan (home, car, job, etc.) who were unlucky enough to be caught outside the country were barred from reentry for weeks. Pressure finally caused the Japanese government to reluctantly yield to reality.

    So what is being done about the childless society problem? Japan is making old people more comfortable in their isolation. Where it once resisted necessary accommodations for handicapped people, escalators and elevators are now being retrofitted. Handicapped people are “others” in Japanese society and despite international pressures there was little drive to open the country up for them. The elderly, Japanese through and through, are different in a place where age is revered, even if there are fewer around to do the revering. Maybe robots will fill that gap.

    You want accomodation in the meantime? In Tokyo street crossings have countdown lights so you know how much time you have to get across, plus beeping sounds and timers. There are more public toilets and benches. All the buses kneel and the new type taxis can easily accommodate walkers and wheelchairs.

    To keep old people busy, there are all manner of make-work jobs waving traffic through an intersection or pointing out empty parking spots. It is in the end such a Japanese way of dealing with a problem, making massive yet superficial changes while ignoring the fundamental end-of-days scenario unfolding. If the band playing as the Titanic sunk wasn’t Japanese they should have been.

    But what about _____? Fill in the blank with any current American problem and Japan seems like heaven. Homelessness? You see a few sad winos in train stations but they are silent and neat with their belongings. Crime? As close to zero as possible given 12 million people live in tight proximity to one another. Drugs? See crime, above. You can never write Japan off, but you do need to look below the surface to understand her.

    The thing is people seem to like it this way. Japan has had almost no social unrest in modern times, and it has as close to a one party system in national politics as you can get without looking at that of its neighbor in North Korea.

    A writer for the BBC in an otherwise thoughtful article on Japan explained that the party in power is known as the “concrete” party not only for their basic political strengths but because of their ability to devolve make-work construction projects out to the smallest voting districts, dropping in from Tokyo jobs and money accordingly.

    With Japan’s non-proportional representational system, those small districts carry as much punch at the voting booth as do areas many times their population in major cities. Concrete buys votes, you see it everywhere with unnecessary bridges and tunnels, and riverbanks lined with sturdy walls that would hold back a deluge if one were suddenly to appear in the middle of nowhere. Concrete is a visible symbol of power and as it dries solid, a symbol of unchange. This is going nowhere, it’s big and heavy say the retaining walls.

    But perhaps the symbology is wrong, and the solidity of concrete largess from the central party is not the right interpretation. What if we see the concrete as nothing more than superficial? Most of it poured is designed to hold back water, to keep nature in its place. But concrete works on one time scale and nature another. What if the concrete was just there to mask over a more fundamental problem, like providing extra seating areas instead of addressing the child problem?


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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Other Ideas

    What Went Wrong During the Pandemic

    May 20, 2022 // 5 Comments »

    We were swindled, fooled, bamboozled, and lied to during the pandemic about the value of masking, closures, and things like social distancing. It hurt us. Understanding how badly we failed ourselves is not only an inevitable part of the “told you so” process, but more importantly, a lesson for next time. Ask the Swedes.

    Sweden had zero excess deaths. The U.S. had the most excess deaths of all nations. New York had more than Florida. That’s the whole story right there in a handful of words if you understand it.

    The key element of misdirection in the American swindle was case counts, those running numbers on all the screens telling how many Americans had tested positive. If you really still wonder, it looks like some 60 percent of us had some flavor of Covid during the pandemic period, most of us with mild (i.e., like a head cold) or no symptoms. How high the numbers went in your neck of the woods depended a lot on how much testing was going on, as obviously more testing equaled more “cases.” For me, with a very mild set of symptoms all clearly in line with Covid, I never even bothered to test. My spouse, with no symptoms, never tested. Both of us fell outside the statistical scary race to ever larger numbers.

    Not that it mattered because case count told us nothing but to be scared. Very similar for hospitalizations; useful for work load management, but often just as indicative of changing medical protocols. The initial thoughts were Covid-positive people needed to be hospitalized and put on respirators, until soon enough it was realized the infections associated with long-term respirator use were killing more people than the virus. Protocols changed, hospitalization numbers went down. That stat, too, did not really matter. Since Covid proved fatal primarily to the elderly (below) many hospitalizations began with something else to end with Covid. My own father suffered a blinding, massive stroke, went into hospital, and caught Covid there, to officially die of respiratory failure. I’m not sure if he counted as a statistic or not.

    Now the bad news. Modern medicine cannot cure death. Everybody dies. Most in America who don’t die earlier in accidents typically die once past the age of 77. In 2019 and 2020, heart disease and cancer each killed about double what Covid did. Each year about three million Americans die of one thing or another. So the only statistic that really matters then when talking about the roughly two years of the pandemic is “excess deaths,” deaths beyond the usual couple of million. Given the broad spread of Covid and its potential to be fatal, it becomes a valid assumption the excess deaths will be Covid deaths. Death is the only real measure of Covid’s impact because it is the only thing we can’t fix.

    Sweden had zero excess deaths. The U.S. had the most excess deaths of all nations. New York had more than Florida. That’s the whole story right there in a handful of words if you understand it.

    Sweden did very little in terms of halting work and school, or forcing masking and social distancing. The U.S., quite a bit more. Within the U.S. states known for their Covid “efforts,” particularly New York, had excess deaths worse than or similar to do-little Florida. An awful lot of effort and angst and secondary and tertiary and other collateral damage (addiction, suicide, unemployment, social unrest, failing grades) did very little to change very little. The U.S. had the highest excess death rate among all 11 countries in a Kaiser-run study.

    And we were lied to. Writing in July 2020, the New York Times stated Sweden’s “decision to carry on in the face of the pandemic has yielded a surge of deaths without sparing its economy from damage. Sweden’s grim result — more death, and nearly equal economic damage — suggests that the supposed choice between lives and paychecks is a false one: failure to impose social distancing can cost lives and jobs at the same time.” Tsk, tsk, said the media. They’re still saying it. Despite Florida having only 148 excess deaths (per 100k) and New York showing 248, Politico’s May 1, 2022 headline read “Florida lost 70,000 people to Covid. It’s still not prepared for the next wave.”

    Much as in Florida, Sweden allowed restaurants, gyms, shops, and most schools to stay open. People went to work, some masked, some not. That stood in contrast to the U.S., where by April 2020 the CDC recommended draconian lockdowns, throwing millions out of work and school. There’s plenty apples and oranges arguments. But they do not explain the disparity inside a particular U.S. state. Nor do they account for how excess deaths compares a country to itself and ignores national differences. If all you want is a locale with statistically low Covid deaths, look to the developing world where numbers are low because most people die of something else well before they reach the Covid danger zone of age 77 and older.

    The U.S. is the only major western nation that still demands a negative Covid test for entry, including for its own citizens. The U.S. is the only nation where every Covid palliative, such as new anti-viral drugs to lessen the impact of a positive case, must be run through the gauntlet of Red-Blue politics via a social media-Late-Night-MSM feedback loop that for two years tried desperately to link anything remotely questionable to Candidate Trump, down to repeated death charms raised in the MSM against “Red” events like motorcycle gatherings and Repub rallies. Despite never delivering on the promised viral load, they retain the moniker super spreader event. You’d expect most everyone in Florida to be dead by now if all you listened to was CNN.

    Besides blowing the response broadly and leaving our economy in shambles, America’s Covid strategy steadfastly refused to acknowledge the age disparity in excess deaths. Globally the vast masses of deaths were in persons age 77 and older. Among Covid-exposed individuals, people in their 70s have twice the mortality of those in their 60s, and 3,000 times higher than for children (a study found no increased mortality in Sweden in those under 70. The U.S. actually had fewer than normal excess deaths in kids ages 0-5 then in non-Covid years.) But everyone was made to wear a mask, school kids in Hawaii still must, and in New York elderly Covid patients were returned to their nursing homes by a governor who once had a shot at being America’s next president.

    The data was known from early days of the pandemic, assembled out of pre-social distancing China. Death rates for Chinese elderly (not social distancing) and American elderly (social distancing) were very similar. Swedish intensive care admission rates showed sharp declines after early pandemic peaks despite a lack of shutdowns. Age-specific solutions were needed for a virus that was age-specific in taking lives, but we instead went for the broadest shut downs across the United States with no regard to collateral affect. We ignored or over-looked the data. We are paying for that mistake now. Savings lives or saving the economy? Both, please. Ask the Swedes.

    The what — America’s pandemic response was just wrong across the board — is clear by the numbers. The why, attributable to “politics,” it is an international shame. But the other reasons for failure are equally shameful. American’s underlying health is worse than most developed countries where some form of socialized medicine exists. This is all exacerbated by income inequality, high rates of poverty, and the maddening levels of obesity, diabetes, and “deaths of despair” which plague our underclass. Blacks were hit harder by Covid than whites. The poor were hit harder than the well-to-do. It is more evil Malthusian than Darwinian that the Haves had not Covid and the Have Nots had it. Whatever we did, masking or not, lockdowns or not, would have suffered because of this fundamental deficiency in our system.

    For next time, there are two elephants in the room. One would be to avoid politicizing the public healthcare response and truly rely on science to dictate societal actions. The joke that if Trump had recommended oxygen to breath MSNBC would have empaneled experts to demand carbon dioxide is so close to true I had to check for it on Wikipedia. The other elephant is to come to grips with the sad reality the pandemic impacted harder here than anywhere else in the developed world because we as a nation steadfastly refuse to chose from the menu of ways to provide broad-based healthcare, especially preventive care. Fixing the next pandemic means fixing America.





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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Other Ideas