By John Duffy
In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, I spent a lot of time in internet chatrooms, doing my best to educate random people about the history of US aggression around the world, particularly in the middle east, and about how US support for Israel has allowed for incalculable suffering amongst the Palestinian people. Of course, I was twenty years old at the time, and my own grasp of that history was quite tenuous, but even so, it was evident to me that the attacks were not random acts of violence. So when the phrase “they hate us for our freedoms” poured forth from the mouths of politicians and pundits like so much bloody chum for the masses, I learned one of my first lessons propaganda and its usage by the state in times of crisis.
Right from the outset, it was clear that 9-11 was not going to be cause for self reflection. The US media wasn’t going to honestly lay out what Bin Laden himself said were his reasons for the attacks, and then suggest that while we couldn’t let such violence go unanswered, perhaps the attacks should be a wake up call to reform our foreign policy, which was more than two-hundred years deep with unprovoked aggressions. Of course not. That would be the kind of response one would expect from mature heads of state who serve at the interest of the great mass of people who first granted them their stations, as opposed to the groomed and practiced grifters who achieve high office only with the blessing of and fealty to a blend of financial firm and military supply executives.
The more astute and learned amongst the American population did note that the 9-11 attacks were “blowback,” but that was mostly limited to acknowledging the actions of the US government in Afghanistan in the 1980’s when “Charlie Wilson’s War,” AKA Operation Cyclone, armed and aided the Mujahadeen in their fight to repel Soviet invasion. Greater discussions of US interventionism were avoided in favor of “Freedom Isn’t Free” bumper stickers and “These Colors Don’t Run” T-Shirts (and I have to wonder if the wearers of said shirts have an opinion regarding recent the withdrawal agreements between the US and the Taliban.)
Isn’t this supposed to be about Covid19? How could “blowback” apply in the case of a virus?
It is not so much that we deserve to have a new respiratory virus circulating the nation and the globe at large…well, maybe we do as, our unceasing drive to eliminate the wild and replace it with either densely populated human settlements or swaths of monoculture land large enough to see from space, all of it connected by planet-spanning shipping networks that can rapidly transport goods and viruses in record time makes such happenings inevitable, but that’s not for this piece. What I would rather focus on is the baseline state of our metabolic health in the US, and in the so-called developed world.
One of the early takeaways about the burgeoning SARS-COV-2 pandemic, was that obese people, and those with other comorbidities such as hypertension, ischemic heart disease, and type II diabetes suffered far worse courses of the disease than people without these illnesses. Since the beginning of the pandemic though, this has not been given a good hard look because the implications that would be revealed by such self scrutiny are uncomfortable. It’s far easier to imagine that the virus is very, very powerful and sneaky and deadly, just like the fatwa declaring jihadists hiding in cave complexes in central Asia. They strike anyone, anywhere because they are two-dimensionally evil, never mind that there are very specific reasons that the World Trade Center was first struck in 1993, that US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed in 1998, or that the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen in 2000.
After 9-11, an obvious question to ask for any reality bound US citizen might have been, “Why did Al-Qaeda target the US, and not say, Bolivia?” After all, there must have been a reason to pick the US as a target for violence. People who make martyrs of themselves probably don’t select their target nations out of a hat. And in the same line of thinking, I have asked, why do some countries have higher death rates from Covid19 than others? For instance, why does the US have a higher death rate than a country like Japan?
Now this can be a very tricky question to answer, and I am certain a lot of readers would like to write off the discrepancies in these select nation’s death rates as products of government policy. “Japan probably acted appropriately, whereas the US didn’t (because Trump!) and therefore rates of infection and mortality are higher in the US. Oh, and masks!”
A closer look at the details seems to paint this answer as unlikely, however. When I read this academic paper, I cannot help but have my curiosity piqued.
“Fatality rates related to COVID-19 in Japan have been low compared to Western Countries and have decreased despite the absence of lockdown.”
Wait, absence of lock down? But aren’t lockdowns the only way to control spread of SARS-COV-2? It goes on:
“Seroprevalence increased from 5.8 % to 46.8 % over the course of the summer. The most dramatic increase in SPR occurred in late June and early July, paralleling the rise in daily confirmed cases within Tokyo, which peaked on August 4.”
This study tested just under 2,000 people over the course of the summer of 2020, who all worked for the same company but at eleven different locations across Tokyo, and by the end of the summer, antibodies for SARS-COV-2 were found in almost 47% of the people in the testing pool. (And this is just looking for antibodies in the blood, and says nothing of T-Cell immunity).
So there was a wave of Covid19 in Tokyo in the summer of 2020, and very little mortality. Now, as winter set in, there was a larger spike in cases and mortality, but their death rate as of this writing is 38 deaths per million people. The US death rate for Covid19 is 1,274 per million. What gives?
First, a disclaimer: The US tests for Covid19 more than almost any country in the world. Our rate of testing is many times higher than that of Japan, so, in theory, we would of course find more cases and attribute more deaths. But can that explain the massive gap in deaths per million? Probably not.
So what is different about the Japanese and the US populations? Why does one virus have such a vastly different outcome in different people’s bodies? Again, we cannot say “they wear masks!” because as the study shows, over the course of the summer a lot of people did become infected with SARS-COV-2 and despite a lack of symptoms, still developed antibodies. So either they weren’t wearing masks, or they were and the masks were useless. Some other factor – or more likely – factors, provide for the variance in outcome.
The most obvious candidate for consideration is the obesity rate. Japan is one of the least obese nations, at 4% obesity, and this despite being a “developed” nation. Obesity has risen in Japan over the past few decades, but remains far below the rate we find in the US, of at least 40%! Obesity, of course, increases risk factors across the board for conditions like hypertension, heart disease, type II diabetes, etc. Obesity also causes a state of constant inflammation, and is known to reduce the amount of a person’s active vitamin D, which itself plays a major role in the immune system’s ability to defend against respiratory infections.
Vitamin D plays such an intriguing role in the entire picture of the Covid19 situation. Research has shown that people with a healthy level of serum vitamin D (at least 30 ng/ml for sufficiency, or optimally 40 ng/ml) are far less likely to become ill with influenza. This edifying article discusses the importance of vitamin D in our T-Cells ability to act as frontline immune defense against infection, stating:
“Geisler noted that “When a T cell is exposed to a foreign pathogen, it extends a signalling (sic) device or ‘antenna’ known as a vitamin D receptor, with which it searches for vitamin D,”, and if there is an inadequate vitamin D level, “they won’t even begin to mobilize.” In other words, adequate vitamin D is critically important for the activation of T-cells from their inactive naïve state. The question of whether T-cells might also need a continuing supply of vitamin D to prevent the T-cell exhaustion and apoptosis observed in some serious COVID-19 cases  deserves further research.”
One of the interesting social factors in the United States, as well as many European countries, is the prevalence of people living at latitudes which are higher or lower than their particular skin tone is adapted for when it comes to the production of vitamin D. For instance, when people of sub-saharan African origins now reside in say, New York City, or Minneapolis, or Oslo, they will automatically have a more difficult time generating vitamin D because of the melanin content of their skin. Add to this that it is a particular bandwidth of the sun’s UVB radiation falling on the skin that gives us the bulk of our vitamin D, and at northern latitudes this particular bandwidth of solar radiation is only available during a shorter window of time during the year than it is closer to the equator. Further, it is only at a particular time of day, right about noon, that our bodies can exploit this bandwidth of light for vitamin D production, and in most modern nations, this is the exact time of day people are indoors at work and school.
Obesity, a poor diet, latitude, and lifestyle can all contribute to a vitamin D deficiency, and a vitamin D deficiency has been associated with worse outcomes from Covid19 around the world. Food is for the most part, a poor source of vitamin D (fortified cereals and milk providing a bare minimum to prevent rickets), but where it is found in food it is at it’s highest quantities in beef liver and fish. While Japan is not known for it’s beef liver sashimi, they do however eat fish and other seafood as a regular staple.
When we look at the low Covid19 mortality rate in Japan relative to the US, a lot of factors need to be considered, but a low preponderance of obesity, and more robust vitamin D status need to be at the fore of our attention. To be sure, there are other caveats to consider, such as their high quality national healthcare system maintaining the population’s baseline health, as well as the nation’s geographical proximity to the source of this and other coronaviruses which may have spread more widely across the population in the recent, or even distant, past, thus conferring upon the population a higher level of immunity.
Just like the people who died sitting at their desks on 9-11 didn’t deserve their fates, the people who die from Covid19 also do not deserve theirs. But there are reasons why some people die from a SARS-COV-2 infection while other people unconsciously brush it off like a late season mosquito. The reasons are physiological in nature, and the good news about that is that by and large, we have abundant control over our bodies, starting with our metabolic health. Obesity, heart disease, insulin resistance, type II diabetes and vitamin D deficiency are all factors that we can control with diet and lifestyle, and despite what many people might think, we can begin to improve our metabolic markers in four weeks if we make the necessary adjustments (and knowing that, we must ask, how much improvement could we have seen in our general health over the course of lockdown?) However, we need to confront the hard truths about our culture and lifestyle if we want to avoid continuing vulnerability to otherwise mild illnesses. We have to look at our food system, wholly owned by a handful of transnational corporations, and totally buttressed by government subsidies and fossil fuel inputs, and come to the conclusion that human beings do not thrive on diets primarily consisting of processed foods. We have to be willing to anger the executives and shareholders of Con Agra and Archer Daniels Midland, Nestle and Coca-cola, and tell people not to eat seed oils and processed carbohydrates and the disgusting menagerie of foodish products generated from the unholy union of the two.
Before anyone ever uttered the syllables, “SARS-COV-2,” a global epidemic of obesity was widely known to be underway, and had been called out as the unfolding disaster that it is. Like the national security wonks who saw “the system blinking red” in the summer before 9-11, there have been doctors and researchers screaming in the wilderness for years about how the modern food environment is the source of chronic illness. They scream still, that Covid19 isn’t an equal opportunity killer stalking the globe in search of victims, all equally vulnerable due to being human, but rather, that actions, individual and cumulative, do have consequences.