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Sunday, 30 May 2021

Bernard Shaw goes to Samoa

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked as an extra on the latest fantasy series, and this means I have finally had the time and the freedom from digital poisoning to read some of the books I have wanted to finish.

Like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. A Thomas Mann book is long and its characters and ideas only really come into focus in the second half. But when they do, wow. Hitler – what were the Germans thinking? Mann describes not the rise of the Nazis but the fall of reason and cults of irrationality that preceded it. And which could precede any form of extreme collectivism anywhere. What he describes isn’t the Popper analysis everyone bandied about cack-handed back when we thought that any reinvigorated conservative critique of progressive radicalism was an impending fascist coup. It’s something more general, something latent in our own instinct to find the self-serving pattern of submission and permission to suit any uncertain times, and also latent in the instinct of intellectuals to make all times seem so uncertain that shit like that can be made to happen in them.
I also read four plays by Ibsen, all good and Ghosts and Hedda Gabbler being perfect marvels, the best plays I can remember having read. Seeing these plays as a bourgeoise in a Victorian theatre must have felt like finding a bomb under your seat.
I was also able to start part 2 (having already read parts 1 and 3) of Michael Holroyd’s biography of Bernard Shaw, covering the years 1898-1918. Shaw, a playwright (and disciple of Ibsen), is an unsympathetic character, with his vegetarianism, chastity, self-regard and urge to pontificate on everything, but he’s also the man who was a tireless cheerleader, inventor, and, behind the scenes, a diligent planner for much of what we call progress in the Western world. Everyone being paid the same amount, men and women being treated by society as if they were physiologically and psychologically identical – these were Shaw’s ideas, expressed frequently enough during an age when they only seemed outlandish and attention-seeking to become familiar, if still attention-seeking, concepts in our own times. And so much more (renewable energy, pacifism, animal rights, the list is quite possibly endless) – Shaw was the original SJW, with the important exception that he could and did laugh at himself, and was prepared to do the grinding political work needed to make civics work well – better schools, better drains, that sort of thing. And not a typical SJW either in that he courted and tolerated opposition in order to better spread his views. Thus he debated G.K. Chesterton, in debates chaired by Hilaire Belloc in a friendly but no-holds barred fashion, for many years. 

And most importantly for our purposes, Shaw was an antivaxxer who debated the most famous vaccinationist of his days, Sir Almroth Wright, regularly for decades. Wright, in fact, sought out Shaw first for publicity purposes.
Shaw’s opposition to vaccination was in part emotional (as an anti-vivisectionist), in part mystical (as a believer in a Life Force which trumped Darwinian evolution), in part envious of the prestige belonging to the freemasonry of Medicine over that of Art.
But he also sensed the role of bunkum in medicine, the unproven theories presented as fact, the faked experiments presented as proof, the corrupting influence of money, and the hollowness of appeal to authority (when the British government wanted to promote Wright’s serum they gave him a knighthood, then used his “Sir” as a selling point).    

“Shaw’s sense of vulnerability to the power of this medical elite, replacing his fear of death, gives his satire its edge…Behind these years of correspondence and controversy with Wright, and the play [The Doctor’s Dilemma] that resulted from their association, there lay a wish to take authority from the orthodoxly educated and give it to outsiders… the medical freemasonry was a closed circle of privileged people whose mesmeric power over other human beings angered Shaw.”

Most relevantly to the present day, he saw vaccination as a shameful cover-up for poverty. No need to fix the drains, supply decent housing, or feed the poor properly if you can stop a pandemic breeding in the slums, or at least the fear of one, or at least reduce the chances of it reaching the bourgeoisie, with a cheap jab. And this point – which perhaps acknowledges that vaccination can be effective, but highlights the social cost of its success – remains valid today.

Modern medical opinion, as reported by Holroyd, seems to be, that Sir Almroth Wright’s tuberculosis serum was worthless. There is even a theory that a similar vaccine technology gave the Spanish flu what it needed to get going. I don’t have the reading or expertise to comment on that. But I do know that Wright’s certainty that women were psychologically unfit to vote was misplaced (because, as Shaw noted, and as we can clearly see today, men are not any less prone to pseudoscientific reasoning) and that his repeated opinion that “the effect of hygiene is aesthetic” was positively dangerous, even if it always gave Shaw the opening to argue the case for Art.  

Which brings us to today. Diet is an arm of hygiene just as surely as hand-washing and the avoidance of crowded indoor spaces, both effective in reducing the spread of COVID19 and other infectious diseases. We can see from China and other places that an adequate selenium level of the diet alone quite possibly reduces the case fatality rate (CFR) for COVID-19 by a factor of 4. We can see that higher vitamin D levels (a sign of good diet quality overall, and not only sunlight exposure or vitamin D intake, because vitamin C, iron and magnesium are among the factors contributing to the serum vitamin D level) are associated with a greatly reduced CFR. And that higher levels of unsaturated fat in fat stores (as in the US population) increase the risk of lung damage and death when infected with SARS-CoV-2. Unsaturated fat is the main component of margarines and the cheap oils used to cook the food of the poor; white bread helps to keep it from being burned for fuel; meanwhile the wealthy eat butter and steak, and are not so prone to the storage of excess fat, despite needing to do less work.
Most of these risk factors, as I’ve said before, are actually the unintended consequences of earlier scientific error regarding the risk of skin cancer (which unsaturated oils also promote) and heart disease (which is mainly driven by the excessive insulin response to the modern diet).

A recent example of how the pro-vax narrative ignores the effects of poverty, and hygiene including diet, appeared in the blog of David Farrier. I’ve mentioned Farrier before in this blog because he’s quite a good bellwether of right-thinking opinion, and because he’s worth reading for his own sake. He’s the creator of an entertaining film, Tickled, about the human capacity for deception, and has a pretty good take on conspiracy theory and its psychology. But it depends whose conspiracy theory, because beneath all his quirkiness Farrier is a bog-standard PMC worrywart and always defers to the interests of his class, acting, on the blog at least, as a gatekeeper who's never met an expert he didn't agree with, or at least submit to meekly.

In this article on fake news written by Farrier’s friend Byron Coley, which is otherwise an intelligent and insightful guide to the current conspiracy theory and misinformation landscape inside NZ, we get an example of misinformation by omission, regarding the measles epidemic in Samoa, in a section on some Covid grifters who ran for parliament on the New Conservative platform.

In April on Talano Sa’o, Tildsley spent an episode interviewing a man she described as “an unsung hero in Samoa” Edwin Tamasese.

During the measles pandemic — which was devastating to our people, killed around seventy of our babies — he was right in the middle of it, and he was part of sharing vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin C, and he did what he needed to do.

Tamasese, who has no medical training, spread the false claim during the measles outbreak that authorities were “seeding” the country with measles through the emergency mass immunisation program deployed to stem the epidemic."  

So far, so bad. But the story of the Samoan measles outbreak is being manipulated here. The outbreak happened after Samoa’s regular measles vaccination program was stopped, and it was stopped after two babies died from a botched vaccination. It was the deaths of these two babies, and not the activities of anti-vax grifters, that lead to the deaths of 70 children. The Samoan health service, for reasons that are still not clear, could not run a safe vaccination program. Understandably parents chose not to take further risks, until the cost of not having vaccinated their children became obvious. Samoa has a population of 202,506, and 83 people died in the measles epidemic, among 5,700 confirmed cases. New Zealand has a population of 5 million, the same epidemic was described as the worst since 1938, with 2,194 confirmed cases, and two unborn fetuses in the second trimester died as a result of the outbreak. New Zealand many have higher vaccination rates than Samoa, at least among children, but it also has a thriving population of privileged unvaccinated kids.

This is a huge difference in impact. It is the kind of inequality of outcomes that is usually attributed to systemic racism, colonization etc. But when we see a difference so extreme that it really can be interpreted as evidence of those things by anyone with eyes to see, everyone is strangely silent.
Because systemic racism and neo-colonial exploitation could be real features of life in Samoa, if New Zealand’s experience is anything to go by. What else do we call the replacement of traditional foods with imported rubbish, under a system that promotes Western dietary values? New Zealand has a large Samoan population, and
New Zealand’s dietary guidelines are dismissive of all the traditional Pacific energy foods in favour of grains. The use of coconut is confused with coconut oil and discouraged in patronising statements like “The Heart Foundation considers that when indigenous people consume coconut flesh and milk along with fish and vegetables, and they are also physically active, the coconut consumption is unlikely to put them at risk of cardiovascular disease. They are in a very different situation from people who consume coconut oil along with a typical western diet.”
Which if true (and the claim is still untested, as Shaw would have recognized, but
likely to be untrue) would be true of any food supplying energy. Is it also saying that coconut is unhealthy for a sedentary population? That’s also unlikely to be true.
Traditional diets, and decent diets aligned with them, have long been disrupted in the Islands by Western-trained medical freemasons and commercial traders of imported goods, often
working hand-in-hand. If you want to call it structural racism I won’t stop you. But weird how silent the usual suspects are.

Would the grifter’s supplements have saved lives? A silver bullet nutritional approach to systemic deprivation is rarely highly effective, but according to the
Cochrane Collaboration, the ultimate in evidence-based medicine “Vitamin A reduces the risk of death from measles by 87% for children younger than 2 years”.
Yet the Samoan authorities were telling parents to ignore the grifters. Did they throw the babies out with the bathwater, or were they also supplying the vitamins to the unvaccinated, preferably before they got measles?

I don’t know the answers. But I do read the papers, watch the TV news, and look at stories on the internet. If I don’t know then it’s likely that very few people know. They only know what they’re told, and the narrative is owned by people who won’t tell you these important things. It’s still owned by Sir Almroth Wright. There’s an alternative narrative, of course, but you certainly can’t trust the people who own that.

Which leaves it up to the people who claim to be investigative – including your David Farriers and Byron Coleys – to find out the truth for us, even if this does rattle their class interests.
Summary:  I'm always hopeful that my blog posts may attract people not familiar with my preoccupations and body-of-knowledge, such as it is. So to avoid confusion, here is a summing up:
Vaccines, which have been improved since Sir Almroth Wright's day, are a huge contributor to population health. You shouldn't have needed me to tell you that. However:  There was no Covid vax for a year and most people will still have no Covid vax this time next year. Over 3 million people have died. The drugs are not that effective at preventing this.  Look at environmental factors. The strong associations that exist - selenium, vitamin D and unsaturated/saturated fatty acid ratios - should have been exhaustively tested by now. But instead fuck all has happened. Why? Who is in charge of deciding what to test and how, and why have they not heard of Austin Bradford Hill?

There was no measles vax in Samoa due to a vaccine disaster. Such accidents are always possible, and antivaxers, paradoxically, will always be with us. Why were nutritional interventions - including those with known value - neglected and, indeed, scorned?
And were the other effective hygiene interventions - lockdown, masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, quarantine - used to control spread, and if so, at what stage of the epidemic? They certainly weren't being used in the NZ outbreak.

The pertussis vax in DPT is also ineffective at preventing outbreaks and needs more frequent boosters than most people can manage. Again, 
lockdown, masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, quarantine could be used to control spread, for which to work diagnostic criteria need to be more pragmatic and affordable, and environmental factors should be researched.

It's also relevant that the DPT vaccine is too dangerous to use in sub-Saharan Africa (due to local infectious disease risks that would not be at all relevant in the Pacific). Think of something else there. Why does the development of a vaccine prevent research into alternatives? They will often still be needed.