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Screwtape’s Revenge

February 26, 2021 | apologetics, social issues, theology | No Comments

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

C. S. Lewis, Preface to The Screwtape Letters.
A personal journey

I almost thought I’d figured it all out. The whole belief thing, that is: why people believe the things they do.

Humans aren’t rational; I got that. The Bible has been telling us that for at least 3000 years. In recent decades, cognitive and social psychology put the final nail on that coffin, exposing human folly for all the world to behold. Humans are believing machines, disposed to accept almost anything – no matter how foolish – if it comes wrapped in a persuasive package. Our natural inclination is to trust people, and that’s a feature, not a bug. Without trust, societies cannot function.

Beliefs are like sausages. While we all think our beliefs are products of facts, reason, and experience, non-rational factors like social influences, tradition, self-interest, and emotions are far more powerful.

But something was still missing. What I belatedly came to realize is that there is a supernatural element to the insanity that surrounds us. A demonic influence. I now understand that Uncle Screwtape and his colleagues have been hard at work, and the followers of Jesus should beware.

It is the clear teaching of Scripture that dark spiritual forces have great power in this world.

Lewis spoke of two errors: to “disbelieve in their existence” and to be overly interested in them. Yet this is a false dichotomy, for there is yet a third possibility: to wholeheartedly believe in their existence but think, live and act as if they did not.

As I’ve surveyed current teaching in this area, I’ve encountered some common themes. Some people emphasize the dramatic and supernatural. Others focus on how the forces of darkness sow doubt and discouragement or tempt us to sin (usually meaning sexual – many Christians seem quite OK with pride, envy, or sloth).

Plenty will talk of demon possessions, infestations, exorcisms, and other supernatural manifestations of evil. I stand with the historic teaching of the church in believing those are real. I also believe they are extremely rare. Why should the evil ones expend the effort, when much more ordinary means are so powerfully effective? What gets rarely considered is so mundane it’s virtually invisible.

The primary weapon at the disposal of Satan and his legions is the power to deceive and manipulate.

Satan is the great deceiver (Revelation 12:9). Now, we should stipulate that not all demonic deception need be the work of one particular being. C. S. Lewis’s somewhat whimsical portrayal of a vast bureaucracy staffed by senior demons and interns shouldn’t be taken too literally, but is faithful enough.

It may not sound so threatening, but deceit is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. It was all the tempter in the garden needed to instigate the fall of humanity. In Chapter 20 of Revelation, deception is thrice declared the primary activity of Satan. Paul specifically warned the Corinthians that Satan and his team would look, act, and talk like ministers of the truth:

And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works”.

II Corinthians 11:14-15, NKJV
What power do they wield?

In Scripture, there are many ways that the demonic can influence particular individuals:

  1. They tempt:

    The Gospels reported that Satan led Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:27). In Acts we are told that Satan prompted Ananias to lie to the apostles (Acts 5:3). The most famous encounter concerns the temptations of Jesus recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Three specific temptations were placed before Jesus: 1) creaturely comfort, 2) placing demands upon God, and 3) raw political power. How often do we say “yes” to such temptations?
    _
  2. They have the power to plant ideas:

    I Chronicles 21:1 tells us that Satan prompted King David to take a census. In Matthew 16:21-23, Peter rebukes Jesus for prophesying His death. Jesus in turn rebukes not Peter, but Satan – unmasking the true source of Peter’s ill-chosen words. Peter was still focused on worldly political power and national restoration, an offer Jesus had already declined.
    _
  3. They recruit:

    Beyond temptations and the power to plant ideas, Satan’s legions have the means to recruit followers. I have no difficulty supposing the Nazis, the Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge, or the Imperial Japanese were on Team Satan, and most would probably agree. But in Scripture this was most explicitly declared of the devoutly religious Pharisees who opposed Jesus throughout His earthly ministry:

    You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.” John 8:44a, NIV

In these Biblical examples, nothing in the outward appearance would cause one to suspect the supernatural. There was no levitation, strange voices, or spinning heads. The behavior and actions were quite ordinary. Without the omniscient narrator, no one would likely suspect Satan was pulling the strings.

What are their techniques?

In his attempt to corrupt Jesus, Satan proved quite adept in his command of Scripture. In point of fact, he embraced a very literal interpretation of selected verses. This should be a warning to us all.

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul offered an explicit warning that sexual temptation was another weapon in Satan’s arsenal:


Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

I Corinthians 7:5, NKJV

If Satan is the great deceiver and the father of lies, then that must include the direct propagation of falsehood. He doesn’t even have to be the source. Humans are pretty good at erring without his aid. It is the spread of disinformation that inflicts the greatest harm, and Satan has many tools at his disposal, including one new to history. In this age of the internet, a single user anywhere on the planet commands a potential audience of almost 5 billion people. Social media employ complicated algorithms specifically designed to stimulate our interest, tell us what we want to hear, and ensure we are in the company of like-minded individuals. If some other force could override the algorithm, who would ever know? Never in history has there been greater potential to deceive on a mass scale.

Satan takes advantage of our pride – our weakest spot. There is no point at which we are more easily seduced than in our pride. Defined by Edwards as “thinking more highly” of ourselves than we ought, pride is that tendency to believe we are better, smarter, more powerful, and more important than we are – and it is universal. It was his appeal to pride that seduced Adam and Eve. We naturally want to feel righteous – but we shouldn’t. The prouder a man, the more vulnerable he is to demonic deception. The humbler he is, the more resistant. It’s really that simple.

What are their objectives?

We get that Satan attacks individual believers with temptation, discouragement, and doubt. But this ignores broader and more strategic objectives. He aims to impede the advance of God’s Kingdom on earth. This can be achieved by incapacitating God’s people through deception, division, and sin. Yet it goes beyond that. Because the demonic realm hates humanity, their intention is to inflict as much misery as they are able. In this, they are limited only by God’s restraining hand. In God’s mercy, death is offered as the ultimate and final relief from demonic oppression.

Because God’s plan for reclaiming the earth from the dominion of Satan is through His elect, God’s people are special targets for demonic attack. Anything that impedes the Church accomplishes their goal. This they attempt by turning people away from Christ, sowing discord, promoting false teaching, and luring believers into compromising their reputation intellectually or morally.

What are the signs?

If we expect to see supernatural manifestations, we will almost never recognize demonic deception. [“Wouldn’t that kinda give it away?” – the Spaniel] This, of course, presents a problem, because how then can we really know? Maybe we can’t know for certain. However, when we witnessthe following, we should seriously consider the involvement of dark spiritual forces:

  • Falsehood
  • Division
  • Pride
  • Judgmentalism
  • Strife
  • Self-destruction

Any of these sound familiar? Implicit in the “spiritual warfare” passage of Ephesians 6:12-18 is the principle that demonic forces are behind most of the evil we encounter in this world. How can we recognize its presence? By its fruits.

Is Satan a liberal?

Demonic does not equal liberal. The biblical accounts of Jesus’s engagements with the Pharisees offer a revealing and sobering account of Satanic deception. In the popular construct, Satan tempts us to disregard the law of God, indulge in wanton pleasures, mock Scripture, and have no regard for the opinions of “religious” people. While all of those serve his purposes quite adequately, he’s indifferent regarding what direction we err. After all, what sort of wayward thoughts are more likely to take root in the devout?

The Pharisees were hyper-religious, scrupulously moral, sanctimonious, and highly concerned with appearances. Far from denying the word of God, they were famous for their rigid, hyper-literal interpretations of God’s word, strict conformity to the Mosaic law, and ostentatious displays of religiosity, with tragic indifference to the virtues of grace, love, kindness, and humility. Jesus called them the children of Satan. There is no shortage of such persons in Christian history, or in the Christian present.

The deceived – which means all of us at some time or other – are not inherently bad people. The Pharisees hoped and believed that if Israel were to perfectly honor the law of God, that the sovereignty of Israel would be restored. While their greatest failure was pride, another of their errors was to emphasize worldly power over faith and virtue. Like Peter, they merely wanted to “Make Israel Great Again”.

What are we to do?
  • Recognize the nature of the battle (Ephesians 6:12)
    Simply acknowledging the reality of the situation is clearly the first step. Seldom if ever will we see or hear demons with our senses. We only know of their existence and methods through Scripture. People are not our enemies. Have we really internalized what Paul taught: “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers….”?
  • Study (Ephesians 6:14)
    True knowledge is a defense against deceit, but one must be extremely cautious about one’s sources. Jesus’s warning wasn’t just for Galileans (Matthew 7:15); there will always be wolves in sheep’s clothing among us. If that doesn’t mean they act devout and say the “right” things, then it doesn’t mean anything. By their fruits we should know them, as in the signs listed above.
  • Pray (Ephesians 6:18)
    The Lord’s prayer many of us learned – “deliver us from evil” – contains an article in the original Greek and should be translated “deliver us from the evil one”. In your church, public, and group prayers, how many times have people prayed for deliverance from Satan – which would imply, more than anything, deliverance from deceit? In my experience, hardly ever. Maybe we should be praying the way Jesus taught us?
  • Be humble
    When it comes to Satan, we may admit we are tempted, tried, and tormented – but not tricked. No, not me! Of course, by definition those who are deceived do not know they are deceived. To imagine we are above deception is where it first begins.

Christians and Conspiracies

February 5, 2021 | pride, social issues, theology | No Comments

Hands on ears

“You can’t handle the truth!”

That classic line from Colonel Jessup in the witness stand became a waving flag for many. It is so enticing to think we own the truth, and that those who can’t “handle” it are naïve, weak, or cowardly. Delivered to perfection by Jack Nicholson, Jessup hammered a wedge between truth and fantasy, and of course we all know which side we’re on, don’t we?

What most overlook is that Colonel Jessup was fooling himself. Yes, the character was a courageous leader with a distinguished career, but he was also a vindictive bully who fought to suppress the truth about his own culpability in the death of private Santiago.

The fall of humanity commenced with an assault on truth, and it sometimes feels the battle against truth has never been more relentless. Among followers of Christ, this should be obvious. We witness in the secular culture a frequent denial of reality: whether the humanity of the unborn, the immutability of sex, or the facts of history. Our reaction might range from despair to compassion to mockery, but too often we forget these are lost souls under the dominion of dark spiritual forces. So, what’s our excuse?

Why do so many of our brothers and sisters in the Lord commit the same denial of reality they mock in unbelievers?

Christians and conspiracy theories

A disturbing number of professing Christians are entranced by dark QAnon conspiracies, anti-vaccination hysteria, unverifiable claims of stolen elections, or bizarre fantasies regarding the nefarious machinations of Bill Gates, like one recent commenter at The Gospel Coalition:

Note: James Corbett is a well-known internet provocateur who never met a conspiracy he couldn’t profit from.

Much digital “ink” has been spilt over the last 12 months on Christians and conspiracies, though it is difficult to tell whether this has had much impact. Those most inclined toward conspiracy theories are the least likely to benefit from the articles, or might read them only for the purpose of arguing. The articles have mostly focused on refuting the specific conspiracies or warning of the moral implications. Both are on point and send a valuable message. They might help protect fence-sitters from plunging into the abyss. Another category of articles will tell you how to avoid them. The problem is that people don’t care. Explaining to a conspiracy hound how to tell truth from fiction is like teaching my dog how to eat healthy: he doesn’t see the point, he’s sure it doesn’t apply to him, and the conversation’s going nowhere. [“Just give me what you’re having, and I’m good” – the Spaniel]

To make a real impact on true believers in false beliefs, we must look beyond what they believe to why they believe. Not every popular myth really qualifies as a conspiracy theory in a literal sense. For our purposes here, the distinction is unimportant.

The Gospels report that after the resurrection of Christ, the priests conspired with the Roman guards to report that the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15). So, conspiracy theories have been around as long as conspiracies, and in this case we have a twofer – a real conspiracy by the priests and guards to spread a false conspiracy theory concerning the disciples. But this historical example exhibits elements true for the 21st century as well as the first. Conspiracy theories don’t pop out of nowhere. Often, they are instigated by bad actors with ulterior motives who know they are untrue.

Why they resonate with us

This problem is far more nuanced than simply dismissing conspiracy theorists as gullible and uncritical thinkers. Indeed, many are. But forces in our own mental programming and our environment strongly drive us in that direction.

Humans are by nature curious. God designed us to seek understanding and explanations. With diligent effort, a broad fund of knowledge, and the wisdom of experience this often works. The blessing of a curious nature led to the spectacular technological progress of the last few centuries. We don’t just want to know how nature works. We want to understand how people work, why things happen, and why people do the things that they do. Serious sociology and psychology – there’s a lot of unserious work in both fields – are responsible and efficient means to satisfy this impulse. So are forensics and fields of legal investigation. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are a cheat – a short cut into a blind alley. They are cocaine for the curious mind. One hundred hours of watching YouTube videos is no substitute for years of education but can seem very persuasive and succeed in creating an unwarranted sense of certainty. They might be wildly off-base, but for the purpose of “solving” the puzzle are equally effective, and sometimes even more emotionally gratifying than the boring truth (for reasons considered below).

A second force is almost certainly the anchoring effect of entertainment. Over our lifetimes we consume thousands of hours of film and television drama, and more often than not some dark conspiracy is underfoot. If we pause to reflect (thinking with Kahnemen’s System 2), we might admit that these are rare in real life, but we do most of our thinking in System 1, which is heuristically driven and powerfully influenced by non-rational factors such as recency and ease of recall. So if day after day, week after week, year after year we are fed conspiracy stories, they are bound to seem more plausible. How do you think Hollywood changed public attitudes toward homosexuality in such a short period of time?

The third factor is the unprecedented availability of misinformation and disinformation enabled by the Internet. Old barriers to publication and distribution have been eliminated and everyone now has a platform. Engineers at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram developed systems that focus and amplify the impact of misinformation, though that was not their intent. We naturally want our opinions confirmed, and complicated algorithms are specifically designed to keep you engaged by telling you more and more of what you want to hear, while you are guaranteed to be surrounded and supported by like-minded company.

A fourth issue that must be acknowledged is that conspiracies really do happen. True conspiracies are rare. Many authors have explained why they are rare, seldom succeed, and how to spot the fake ones. Nonetheless, the simple fact that some have happened affords the true believer “moral license” to believe in one or more that are purely fictitious.

Sinful disposition

Unfortunately, not all internal factors inclining us toward conspiracy theories are so innocent and defensible. There is a dark element to many that appeals directly to the vilest of human impulses.

Conspiracy theories feed our ego. The sense of superiority that comes from being “in the know” can be intoxicating. Like Neo in “The Matrix”, proponents imagine themselves escaping the blinders of society by taking “the red pill” and becoming the hero of their own pathetic little fiction. The act of embracing a lie to become something greater was the offense of Adam, and in this we are truly his offspring.

Some anti-vaccination activists focus on past use of one or two fetal cell lines in vaccine development. (The morality of this has been fully addressed by a number of authorities including CMDA). There’s no clear boundary between having a sensitive conscience and overt moral grandstanding, and the feeling I get when engaging some of these activists is that they know they are morally superior to other Christians, and that they want everyone else to know it as well.

Conspiracy theories malign the innocent and justify our prejudice. Among all conspiracy theories, the bloodiest, most contemptible, and most enduring must be those surrounding the children of Abraham. From being blamed for the bubonic plague in the 14th century, to accusations of conspiring with the enemy in late 19th century France, to the wildest fantasies of an uber-rich and uber-powerful global cabal, the Jews have suffered the most from conspiracy thinking, and experienced the deadly power of lies with six million deaths under the Third Reich.

Anti-semitism appeals to some of the worst human impulses – to feel superior to those who are different, to justify our prejudices, to rationalize our own conduct, and to absolve us of personal responsibility for failure. Hitler rose to power blaming the Jews for every real and perceived shortcoming of early 20th century Germany, including their loss in World War I. A newly elected congresswomen from Georgia blamed the 2018 California wildfires on Jewish space lasers – rhetoric described as “inflammatory” by the Wall Street Journal in an apparently unintentional act of punnery.

Antivaccination activists presume almost all of the millions of worldwide physicians who both prescribe and use them are either stupid or malevolent. Righteous people do not believe such things.

Willful deception

For many, many reasons we are predisposed toward embracing conspiracy theories. We are the demand side of the marketplace. On the supply side is a vast industry of private and state actors competing for profit, fame, or influence and eager to provide.

There are bad actors out there with an intent to deceive and the means to do so.

The antivaccination movement traces its roots to the work of the former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper in Lancet in 1999 claiming to have found a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Later investigation established that the research was fraudulent, that Wakefield had to have known, and that he was motivated financially by the promise of riches from the plaintiff’s bar. Provocateur and shyster Alex Jones rose to notoriety after 9/11 peddling the crackpot notion that the terrorist attack was an inside job executed by the highest levels of government. He is now being sued – one hopes successfully – by the parents of schoolchildren murdered at Sandy Hook, after Jones carried on for months arguing the tragedy was a hoax and the bereaved parents were merely actors. Whether Jones believes such nonsense I neither know nor care, but peddling it to a gullible and willing audience has made him both rich and famous.

It’s spiritual warfare that must be fought with spiritual weapons. Jesus didn’t cast out demons with superior arguments.

Emerging evidence over the last several years has pointed to the involvement of hostile foreign states in manipulating American public opinion. The communist regime of China now exercises near-veto power over American film production, where profits speak louder than principles. (US social media are blocked in China, and the local versions are tightly controlled. They’re not stupid.) Russian activity on social media in the US and other western democracies is well documented. Far from the simplistic narrative that they attempted to promote the election of Donald Trump, Russian-promoted social media plays to all extremes of the political spectrum. Their presumed intent has been to promote civil strife, discord, resentment, and polarization. They must be thrilled with their apparent success.

Christians who believe Scripture must take seriously another source of deception – the spiritual realm. The spiritual entities at war against God are consistently characterized as both attractive and deceiving. If we believe Scripture, then the battle for truth is much more than an argument with our opponent. It’s spiritual warfare that must be fought with spiritual weapons. Jesus didn’t cast out demons with superior arguments or by instructing their victims in critical thinking.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Ephesians 6:11-12, NKJV

It requires much less effort to assert a claim than refute it.

Conspiracy fans and anti-vaxxers never really engage in serious research, though they routinely claim to have done so. “Research”, in this instance, amounts to watching hours of video and consuming large doses of polemics manufactured for and posted to fringe websites. Those never make one an expert, but can make someone feel like one. A little knowledge can seem like a lot when you have no idea how much you don’t know. It takes no real effort to blindly accept a list of 20 or 30 assertions and repost them on Facebook, as I’ve seen so much of in the last year. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to track down the source of each claim and spot the error. Organizations such as the Christian Medical & Dental Associations frequently post careful rebuttals on vaccination myths and health misinformation, but it’s a whack-a-mole game with newer and more ridiculous claims surfacing with depressing regularity.

Consequences

Succumbing to such deceptions exacts a great cost for both individuals and the Church at large. They corrupt our character, demolish our credibility, lead us to sin against others, and place us in alignment with malevolent spiritual forces.

Corrupted character.

Conspiratorial thinking thrives on pride, and nourishes it in turn. It takes a considerable amount of arrogance to assert superior insight over legitimate experts in a field. I have, in turn, been accused of arrogance in dismissing their arguments. Pride exists within all of us to one degree or another, so I stand guilty as charged. However, in this instance humility is submitting to the judgment of an overwhelming consensus of experts, not standing in opposition to them. Genuine love and yearning for the truth, on the other hand, is a fruit of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:9).

Lost credibility.

When either individuals or large sections of the Body become known for embracing and promoting disinformation, we compromise our credibility on the more important issues. The secular community will reason that if we’re crazy on one score, the rest must be part of the package. We have a duty to them, and a responsibility to God, to preserve our reputation. (1 Peter 2:12)

Slander.

Hurling false accusations against other groups or accusations is slander, and an explicit violation of the ninth commandment. Christians should never be known for such conduct, nor for tolerating it in their midst.

We become pawns to the Father of Lies

Scripture is abundantly clear that there is more to reality than what we perceive with our senses, and that a spiritual war has been raging since Creation. There is no DMZ in this conflict.

“You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.”

John 8:44 NKJV

If we are not on the side of truth, then we are on the side of the enemy. This belief, though, can become deadly when we begin to think we own the truth. The only path along this narrow ledge is to admit our personal limitations and exhibit humble submission toward those in authority – in this case, meaning those most qualified in the subject. We shouldn’t rely on pastors in matters of science, we shouldn’t rely on scientists in matters of theology, and we should seek health advice from our doctor, not the internet.

For those passionate about the truth, the ongoing struggle against misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy thinking can be daunting. The first concluding principle should be to check yourself. (Matthew 7:5) The second is that yes, we are our brother’s keeper. How the Church should deal with conspiracy theorists is a sensitive and complex matter, but it cannot remain faithful to Christ and passive in this regard. We must understand why people are drawn to them, so that the root causes might be addressed. Ultimately this is a spiritual battle, but thankfully we are not unarmed against such a challenge (Ephesians 6:10-18).

COVID-19: Is the end in sight?

February 4, 2021 | health | No Comments

This could be the good news event of the year. Why is no one talking about it? COVID infections in the US have been plunging over the last 3 weeks.

2020: Goodbye and good riddance.

The world is exhausted. Over a year after the SARS-Coronavirus-2 pandemic escaped China and infected the world, we are lonely, frustrated, divided, discouraged, and downright irritable. According to the prevailing narrative, the epidemic is not under control. In one of the singular triumphs of the administrations of “bad boys” Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former US President Donald Trump, multiple vaccines have been developed, approved, manufactured, and released to the public. Yet the vaccine rollouts have been fraught with multiple allegations of inequity and inefficiency – some valid, some perhaps less so. The lockdowns, school closures, and restrictions threaten to continue on until – perhaps sometime in the summer – enough people have been vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity”.

What is herd immunity? How will we know when we’ve reached it?

Well, for starters, herd immunity is not a number. Early in the epidemic the opinion emerged that herd immunity from COVID would require infection or inoculation of 70% of the population, and that number has stuck like old gum to a school desk. But no nobody really knew or could know. Herd immunity is not a number but a state. “Herd immunity” – as defined by the Journal of the American Medical Association – “refers to the protection of susceptible individuals against an infection when a sufficiently large proportion of immune individuals exist in a population. In other words, herd immunity is the inability of infected individuals to propagate an epidemic outbreak due to lack of contact with sufficient numbers of susceptible individuals. It stems from the individual immunity that may be gained through natural infection or through vaccination.” (I explained how this worked last May in “Covidistan, Coronacita, and Carnivals”).

That might require 70% of the population, or 99%, or something much lower. The only certain way of knowing we’ve achieved herd immunity is when it happens. What might that look like? We’ve achieved it when local transmission rates are low, and either stable or dropping in the absence of non-pharmacologic intervention (i.e., masks and social distancing).

COVID cases are plummeting nationwide.

New cases in the US peaked at 308,182 on January 8 but by January 31 had plunged almost two-thirds, down to 110, 906. The more statistically meaningful rolling average, which smooths out reporting fluctuations, peaked on January 11 and has dropped almost 50% in three weeks. The downslope, indicating the rapidity of decline, is dramatically steeper than the drop-off after the two earlier peaks. This is even more significant considering the fact that the earlier two declines were achieved by lockdowns and other interventions, while the present decline is occurring in an environment of loosening restrictions across most locales.

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The most reliable measure – nationwide hospitalizations – confirms this trend. Since patients typically do not require hospitalization until several days after onset, this tends to be a lagging indicator. Hospitalizations nationwide peaked on January 6 at 132,474 and have dropped every consecutive day since January 12. As of February 3 hospital inpatients were down to 91,440, a 30% drop. The rate of decline, averaging 1.5%/day, is far more rapid than similar declines in the late spring and late summer.

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A current chart from the COVID tracking project shows declining hospitalizations in 48 of the 50 US States. (In the two states showing an increase – VT and MT – the actual numbers are very, very low).

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Why are cases dropping so rapidly? The decline in late spring occurred when almost the entire nation was shut down. The decline in late summer coincided with reimposition of tighter restrictions in some of the hardest hit regions. By early January some hospitals seemed to be on the brink of overload and local restrictions were reimposed, mostly in California and New York. But that cannot account for a nationwide phenomenon. The hypothesis that we are fast approaching herd immunity, as a result of widespread infection now supplemented by vaccination, has considerable merit.

Officially, about 8% of the US population has had COVID. Another 8% have now been vaccinated. Assuming the groups do not overlap – they probably do – only 16% of the population is immune. That’s a long way from the “magic” 70% or any other conservative estimate. So how could it even be possible? Two factors come into play. First, the real number of US cases is certainly much higher than 8%. The CDC estimated that by the end of December, 83.1 million US citizens had been infected. We added an additional 7 million official cases in January. If the undocumented cases in January were anywhere close to the same level as last year, we are now well over 100 million cases, or one-third of the US population. If we then add in the vaccinated group, about 40% of the US population should now be immune according to the CDC data and methodology.

But wait! There’s more!

The operating assumption since the onset of the pandemic was that no one was immune to COVID-19 and thus everyone was vulnerable. It was indeed a new virus. This Boolean distinction assumed either you were immune or you weren’t, and there was no middle ground. However, we have had experience with other coronaviruses, and evidence continued to accumulate over the course of 2020 of partial immunity against SARS-Cov-2 thanks to a component of our immune system known as T-cells. As many as 50% of persons tested had T-cells that could recognize and respond to the COVID virus before the epidemic even began. The scientific community has been circumspect regarding the significance of this fact, uncertain whether or not it conferred any protection in those whose T-cells could respond to SARS-Cov2. Last summer, internationally respected epidemiologists speculated that because of pre-existing resistance, herd immunity could kick in with an infection rate possibly as low as 20%. The most optimistic scenario did not pan out, but it remains too soon to rule out any number between the current infection rate of about 30% and the ultimate limit of 100%.

Our experience over the last year strongly suggests some people are resistant to COVID. There are many, many cases of individuals exposed to the virus who never tested positive, including my own family. My son turned positive in early October, having certainly acquired it from school. My wife and I never became symptomatic, and I voluntarily had myself PCR-tested a week later. I remained negative. My experience has been the experience of most. A large meta-analysis published by JAMA in December found that the “secondary attack rate” in multi-person households was a hair under 17%. This means that 83% of people living with an infected patient did not contract the illness. This is quite unexpected for something as infectious as COVID, but not at all surprising if some are naturally resistant. I quite happily signed up for the Pfizer vaccine when it became available, but thought it interesting that I had already been exposed to a symptomatic household member and did not contract it. Was it a case of pre-existing resistance? I’ll never know.

It’s not over yet, but….

The trend is definitely encouraging. Would there be a fourth wave if we reopened now? Maybe, maybe not, but if there were, I believe it would be modest. It’s debatable how much impact public policy measures are having on transmission since most transmission occurs in private gatherings. Probably some. (Some areas have been more aggressive than others in suppressing the spread; the same areas remain most vulnerable to a resurgence.) But the massive nationwide breakout of infections that began in October was exactly what mask ordinances and bar closures were supposed to prevent. Perhaps without such measures the hospitals really would have been overwhelmed. That’s entirely possible; we’ll never know. Most in the media – at least those who’ve even noticed – are sticking with the narrative that it’s all driven by behavior, and numbers are only dropping now because people are finally “scared”. That’s a valid hypothesis; I simply see no evidence for it.

I am not making predictions or scientific pronouncements, simply calling attention to an encouraging trend. There is good reason now for hope and encouragement. More will perish before this is over, and it may never completely go away. Please get your vaccination as soon as you are able. And please be patient and respectful toward one another.

“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.”

Colossians 3:12-13, NKJV