Covid-19 Diary : Friday 20 March 2020

I opened yesterday’s diary entry with the sentence “It has been another gloomy day with nothing positive to combat the abundance of bad news.”  Would I be repeating myself unnecessarily to say the same again today, but only more so?

That’s one of the things we all struggle with.  Each day’s bad news is then eclipsed by the next day’s worse news, and then even more so the day after, and the day after again.  I really don’t wish to spread extra gloom, and I hope that a clearer understanding and appreciation of the issues allows you to put the gloom into perspective;  to understand what is happening, why, and what will continue to happen in the future.  And there are some nice little pieces sprinkled in here too, particularly towards the end.

To get a boost in tranquility, it is time to turn to the lady who is the nicest and gentlest of commentators, a former speech writer for a President who many of us consider to be one of the nicest and gentlest of Presidents, with perhaps some of that perception (but not all, as his memoirs make clear) being amplified by this lady – Peggy Noonan – and her speech writing.

She writes a weekly column in the Wall St Journal that is always positive and pleasant, no matter what the topic and issue she touches on.  Here is her latest contribution, as uplifting as always even though of course about the Wuhan virus, although with a hopefully not tragic twist half-way through.  Earlier in the column she suggests we talk to God.  Yes, I’ll do that, and I’ll mention her to him as part of the conversation.


Another comment on exponential growth.  When I started writing yesterday’s diary entry, I said “it will take the US three days to reach the same infection rate as China”.  Before I sent the entry out, a few hours later, I necessarily modified it to “it will take two days”.  And now, less than 24 hours after writing those words, the US has already overtaken China’s infection rate (57 per million in the US, 56 per million in China).

With exponential growth, everything, invariably, takes less time than you expect.

On the other hand, while this is not a good thing, the leap in US cases observed yesterday and continuing today mainly came from New York (60% of all new cases today are in NY), and is mainly due to the state starting to roll out a wider availability of testing.  So, if you test more people, you uncover more of the existing infections out there.  The increase isn’t so much in “total cases” but in the number of those cases which have been discovered and confirmed.

The climb in US reported cases is continuing, though.

For the record, the new top five countries in terms of infection density are

  • San Marino/144 cases/the equivalent of 4,244 cases per million people
  • Faero Islands/80/1,637
  • Vatican City/1 case/the equivalent of 1248 cases per million people
  • Iceland/409/1,199
  • Andorra/75/971
  • Italy/47,021/778

Until now, we’ve largely been dismissing these very high infection rates as statistical aberrations, but now we have Italy displace the fifth of the countries, and there’s no way that is a statistical aberration.  It may well be a harbinger for where other countries will end up as well.

For major countries and/or outbreaks, and in general :

Total Cases244,799275,864
Total Deaths/Percent of all Resolved Cases10,030/10.3%11,398/11.0%
Active Cases (ie not yet died or cured)147,362172,554
US Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million13,795/207/4219,643/263/59
UK Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million3,269/144/483,983/177/59
Canada Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million873/12/231,087/12/29
Worst affected major country/case rate per millionItaly/679Italy/778
Second worst country affectedSwitzerland/488Switzerland/649
Third worstSpain/387Spain/460

China’s new case rate has been inching up (13/13/34/39/41 for the past five days) but this is not as serious as it seems.  In actual fact, and amazingly, there have been no new domestic infections reported for the last two days in a row – all the new cases are from people coming into China from overseas.  Two days without any new cases is a stunning achievement.

Another couple of weeks of that and China can start to think about calling itself free of the virus, as long as it can control new exposures from people coming into the country from elsewhere.  We sense that its border with some of its adjacent countries and special administrative regions are porous rather than solid, so this might be either difficult or impossible, although if there’s a single country, anywhere on the planet, with the resolve and ability to lock its borders 100% shut, surely it is China.

We’ve been worrying about the increasing death rate as a percentage of total closed cases – yesterday it was 10.2%, and today it has continued to climb up to 11.0%.  These numbers are way higher than any of the projections are suggesting should be expected.

But, looking ahead, maybe there’s hope on the horizon.  If we look not at the totality of closed cases to date, but instead look at the present breakdown of current cases, they are split between 95% experiencing a mild case of the virus and only 5% who are in serious or critical condition.  Is it fair to say that all the patients with mild cases will survive, and most of those with serious/critical might perish?  Does that mean the fatality rate will start trending down again soon?

We think this is likely, because as we test more people and identify more cases that might otherwise have been so mild as to pass unnoticed and unrecorded, the total cases and mild condition cases should swell.

A friend forwarded a brilliant presentation set of data analysis which some of you are sure to find interesting and insightful.  There are a couple of charts that we are uncomfortable with – for example, the infection rate chart near the beginning showing reported infections per million people after countries reach a trigger of 100 cases is interesting but entirely unfair.  The 100 case trigger means a great deal more in a country with few people than in a country with many people.  Also, there are so many other variables impacting on infection rates that are not considered in this chart, which is hinted at by the huge range of rate slopes shown.

We could express some pleasure in seeing that the US has been doing better, so far, than all other countries except Japan and, astonishingly perhaps, China, but it seems we’re about to “overtake” Hong Kong and may soon catch up with Singapore too.  It is way too soon to start judging winners and losers (perhaps better to say losers and greater losers).

It is a great set of data presentations, and while some of the financial data is a bit obtuse, there are interesting points sprinkled all the way through.

Who Should Pay?

The airlines, as we noted yesterday, have been quick to ask for $50 billion for themselves and additional amounts for “their friends and colleagues” in the industry.  This request has been meeting with some gratifying pushback.  Here are two similar stories – the first equates the $50 billion request to how the airlines have “given” just over $45 billion to their shareholders and/or executives and/or spent in buying back stock over the last five years.

The second equates the $50 billion request with how the airlines have spent $47 billion on share-buybacks alone, over the last ten years.

The clear implication in both cases is that if the airlines hadn’t profligately wasted a similar amount of money, we’d not now need to bail them out.

As for the first article, they don’t distinguish between dividend payments and share buybacks.  These are two massively different actions.  While dividends are optional, they are usually also fair.  You probably have stock investments yourself, and while you hold some stocks in the hope of capital gains, you hold others at least in major part because of the regular dividend payments you receive.  It is the company paying/rewarding you for the use of your money, and that is a fair legitimate payment that is a cornerstone of how western businesses fund themselves.  As long as the dividends aren’t imprudent, no-one should criticize them.  But if the company is Boeing, and it is having to borrow money to pay for dividends, that is definitely worth as much criticism as can be mustered.

The second article doesn’t really allow for criticism, but there is a comment that must be made.  While the whole subject of share buybacks is slightly contentious, there may perhaps be some cases where it makes sense to buy back one’s own shares.  But does it make sense to do like American Airlines, and to spend almost $13 billion on share buybacks (more than any other airline) during a period where it actually accumulated $8 billion in losses – all the other airlines made more profit than they spent on buybacks.

Share buybacks are sort of a “luxury” type expenditure.  When you’re already losing $8 billion, it is an unusual decision to spend $13 billion on buying back your shares, unless you’re certain your shares are so colossally undervalued as to make their purchase a “once in a lifetime” bargain that you can’t afford to refuse.  In that case, the idea would be that you can buy back shares at say $5 each now, and then resell them onto the market in the future for $10 each, and therefore double your cash without increasing your equity issued.  That doesn’t seem to have been clearly the case for AAL, although we don’t know exactly when in the last ten years the buybacks happened.

So why should taxpayers indemnify incompetent company leadership?  As a reader of the weekly newsletter wrote today, what is wrong with the current formal Chapter 11 bankruptcy process – one surely well known to the airlines – and working through the airline recovery that way?


This article touches on a phenomenon that I’ve also anticipated – repeated peaks and troughs of the virus, although they are suggesting it be artificially managed by dialing up or down the level of social distancing controls.  We’re not sure how practical (or desirable) that is.  Their conclusion is to expect major virus type impacts until a vaccine has been produced.

Here’s an article in Italian – open it in Chrome or use Google Translate if you wish to understand it – which suggests that possibly the Italian infection might be peaking in two weeks.

But that’s a very weak hope rather than a firm fact, and while it might seem like good news – “only two weeks to go”, remember the exponential thing.  Two weeks ago, Italy was reporting 4,600 cases in total, a 600 case increase on the day before.  Today it is reporting 47,000 cases and a 6,000 case increase.  Both those numbers are almost ten times greater.  Does that mean, when things peak in two weeks, they’ll be at 470,000 cases and a 60,000 increase the previous day?  It might, we really can’t start to guess.

Oh, also relevant to note that two weeks ago, total deaths were 197 in Italy.  Today they are 4,032 – a twenty-fold increase.  So how many deaths, dare we wonder, will be recorded in two weeks time?


Lots more closures.  In the US, both California and New York states are now on lockdown.

Both our northern border with Canada and southern border with Mexico have both now been mutually closed by us and the other country.

Britain continues to slowly close itself more and more down.  These national measures being instituted in the UK make us wonder how long before the crazy patchwork quilt of city, county, and state level measures in the US will be rationalized into a uniform national policy.  The sooner the better, we suggest.  Otherwise, all we’re doing is shifting the virus around the county from hotspot to next new hotspot, and back again.

We need to exclude the virus from everywhere, the same way China did, and that requires a national policy, and it requires places with low levels of cases (all 50 states have cases) to accept the same impositions as places with high levels.  Doing so means low-level places remain at low levels; surely that should be sufficient motivation.

We agree with this article, and it is a point worth considering.  Millions of people are being forced to try online ordering of many more things than they’ve ever done before.  Will those people return to regular retail shopping when this all dies down, or will they shift their shopping habits and, to some level significantly greater than before, continue to shop online?

Assuming the fulfillment services don’t fail and the experiences are positive, we think this will massively accelerate an overall general shift to online purchasing of everything.  That’s a problem for many/most retailers that won’t go away when the virus recedes.

The lovely biennial Farnborough Air Show in England, scheduled for July, has now been cancelled.  This was a bit surprising – not many other organizations are already cancelling July events, but we’re certain that most July events, in most parts of the world, will indeed end up being cancelled.

This makes us wonder just how much longer the Olympic Organizing Committee will wait before announcing the cancellation of the July Tokyo Olympics.  For sure, Japan itself is doing a good job of keeping its rate of new cases at a low/slow level.  But what about the tens of thousands of competitors and their support teams from other countries?  And what about the whole “avoid mass gatherings” and “social distancing” requirements?  We just can not see how the Olympics could responsibly proceed.


The constant stream of articles telling us there’s no need to worry about shortages continues to be silently rebutted by real-world experiences.  A reader sent a picture of a Californian Costco parking lot full of seniors lined up for their early admission to the store, and reported mixed results with what was in-stock when her turn finally came to be admitted.

We noted, with surprise, that a throwaway joke we made on Twitter yesterday about toilet paper drew a significant number of negative responses from people accusing those with ample tp stocks as being selfish.  Most of our other tweets go largely uncommented on, this one clearly hit a “Twitter nerve”, although we hasten to add that the Twitter population is happily not fully representative of the country as a whole.

But we remain totally unrepentant.  Our first priorities are to ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbors, etc.  Think of a series of concentric circles.  We’re totally unwilling to accept personal sacrifice, and the sacrifice of our friends and loved ones, so that some stranger, somewhere remote from us and our community, can instead hoard toilet paper (or anything else) for themselves.

It is also just common sense, if buying anything is a hassle-filled, dangerous, and uncertain experience, you want to go shopping less frequently, and so you buy more each time you go out.

Certainly, when we don’t feel directly threatened, we can then start to selectively help the people we wish to, and allow them to share in the benefits of our prudence.  But we’re unwilling to assist someone who, rather like an airline now demanding a bailout, refused to take any personal responsibility for their situation and actions, and now are demanding that people who did should now make sacrifices in order for the other unprepared people not to have to make sacrifices or experience any consequence from lack of forethought.

Shortages are not caused by prudent people buying up unnecessarily large supplies.  Prudent people already have unnecessarily large supplies.  It is the imprudent panicked people who then empty out the supply channels now.

So if we should ever find toilet paper for sale again, we’ll probably buy some, and not feel at all embarrassed at doing so.  It has become so (in)valuable a product that there was an entire container load of it stolen (and recovered) the other day.

Meantime, here’s an interesting article.  We loved that it cites champagne as a comfort food, and a good choice for these trying times.  Don’t disagree with that at all!

We mentioned how Amazon is selectively de-emphasizing product lines that it considers as “non-essential”.  It has now suspended sales of vinyl records and CDs.  While one could endlessly debate what products are essential and non-essential, we wonder if a deciding factor here might be that they’d like to encourage us all to sign up for their streaming music service?

 Logic?  What Logic?

Too many people have boasted to me already about being safe because they live somewhere remote. That’s dangerous thinking.  The virus might be slow to get to some parts of the world and to some parts of the country, but absent extreme measures, it is unstoppable.

Here’s another of these self-indulgent navel-gazing bits of politically correct nonsense, this one worrying about the political correctness of ordering food to be delivered.

Don’t give it a second thought.  If this is your preference, just do it.  The only people to feel sorry for are the people who have lost jobs because people have decided not to do this, so as to “protect” them.

Virus?  What Virus?

We’re starting to feel very negative about idiots/fool like these.  And frustrated when we read articles claiming we’re helpless to prevent such idiocy.  My daughter (who did an excellent job of giving a handgun class to a friend of mine earlier today) and I even came across a marauding band of four teenagers in a supermarket car park earlier today.  We both wondered if the threat of coughing on us would validly be an “in fear of my life” event justifying a lethal force response.

Controlling teenagers is only an issue when adults are not willing to do so.  China had no problems controlling its population – it is amazing what the combination of an instant vicious beating on the street and subsequent transfer to a far away and very nasty prison camp can do in terms of helping teenagers (and everyone else) rapidly develop remarkable self control.  That is how China nipped its raging infection rate in the bud and has brought the virus under control to the point of now having had no new cases in two days.  Our passively standing back and watching while our teenagers (and twenty/thirty year olds too) run amok is why we have now out-paced China’s infection rate and are skyrocketing higher.

To be blunt, the uncontrolled actions of these uncontrolled groups threaten to kill some significant number of us, and massively extend the cost and duration of our crisis.  While we bemoan the immaturity of immature people, we doubly bemoan the unwillingness of our “leaders” to exercise their leadership obligations and bring some control to these groups.  We can’t afford the luxury of tolerating and indulging this behavior.  Round them up, lock them up, beat them up, do whatever it takes.  Protect us all from the idiots among us.

There’s a growing new thing – quarantine shaming.  This only works for people with a sense of shame.  For the fools with no sense of shame, more primal measures are required.

While we do admit that teenagers are unable to be sensible on their own, there are people in the “they should know better” category, people who can’t be excused for any reason and need a maximum level of response.  This woman is the poster child for truly criminal selfishness, and the only part of her actions that please us is that she is now being held accountable not by the lax US authorities, but by the Chinese.  We’ll probably never hear of her again.

In the “this is just a coincidence” department, we note that North Korea is scrambling to build a new hospital, even though, it assures us, it has no viral infections.

Here’s another good story about how the virus isn’t just an abstraction.  For some of us, it is a pressing reality.


Everyone’s experience seems different, but for sure, none of us would want this type of experience.

We were encouraged to see a long list of possible treatments in the presentation we linked to above.  Here is more information on one of them – treat this with cautious optimism. Treatments aren’t as good as vaccines, but they’re much better than nothing at all.

Along with new drugs, old drugs are showing surprising value too, such as this.

And here’s more encouraging news on the treatment side of things.  Oh, okay then, plus still one more.

Here’s a good article. Part gloom, and part inspiration. A New York doctor tells us the sky is indeed truly falling.  But she’ll be trying to save us.

Something the presentation, linked above, inconclusively looked at, is the question about possible virus sensitivity to temperature and humidity.  We found their analysis terribly weak, because there are so many other variables not considered, and which could have greatly contributed to the apparent spread of results.  Here’s another article, also lacking in any depth of detailed analysis, but hinting at possibly a “good” answer.  What is a good answer?  A virus which has a very narrow range of optimum temperature and humidity conditions.  Might things (temporarily) improve in summer?  We can’t yet say for sure.

Some commentators are suggesting that perhaps Washington State’s growth rate of new infections is starting to reduce, as is the epicenter within its King County region too.  There are still dismayingly high number of daily new cases, and the suggestions of growth reductions are more optimistic than statistically certain, but it would be enormously encouraging if true.  Whether it be due to the social distancing or the warming spring weather, it is very good to see and suggests some of the more apocalyptic visions of 50% or greater infection rates may be overly pessimistic.

In particular, this is happening while the “lock down” type provisions being adopted elsewhere have been totally absent.  Sure, many stores are closed, but we are not prohibited from leaving our homes (I live in King County).  Maybe – at least in polite Washington – we don’t need the most draconian of measures? Let’s see what the next week or so reveals in terms of continued new case rates.

WHO shows itself as hapless and helpless again today.  It has apparently just worked out something that we’ve all been talking about and very focused on for weeks – the world’s heathcare system is under pressure and likely to collapse.  We wonder what startling revelation they’ll come up with next.

Their out-of-touch incompetency continues to amaze.  These are vital issues they should have been shouting out about two months ago, playing the part of advocate and advance early warning.  Raising the topic now is of no benefit whatsoever.

Unfortunately, our own CDC hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory either.  I chose not to link to an article suggesting they had been lying to the President about testing kits because the confirmation of the claim was thin rather than overwhelming, and it was as much political polemic as meaningful facts about the virus.  But here’s an interesting article – it starts off weakly by quoting various unsourced “facts”, and continues unconvincingly.  However, if you keep reading, you’ll see a fascinating final section showing how the CDC has been outright refusing to answer important and fair questions.  Why?  Or, perhaps, why not?


The Dow dropped again today.  What has happened to the world when I find myself almost adding “by only” to the amount of the drop – a 4.6% drop that in normal times would be astonishingly extreme.

In possibly good news, but hardly transformatively so, we’ve been given another three months to file and pay our taxes.  If you’re expecting a refund, you should of course file now.

Meanwhile, the states are starting to mobilize and move aggressively against price gougers.


A London based friend writes :

I’ve just heard something shocking. My friend XYZ, a very prominent QC, caught the virus while on the job visiting a client overseas.  He is self-isolated at home in London.  His sister, a hospital physician, visited him this morning.

She told him she was under orders not to record virus cases, as long as they had not been hospitalised.

So those are the numbers we are seeing for the UK. Only hospitalised victims.

This is deceptive and wrong.  I can’t tell whether it’s her hospital’s policy, an NHS policy (unlikely, given its demand for more govt funds) or health ministry policy. And she’s no longer answering her phone.


Here’s an interesting example of the impacts of possible viral infections in a production environment (Boeing).  These experiences apply to pretty much all factory type environments, and show how virus concerns can disproportionately bring production to its knees.

A similar logic applies to Amazon, of course.  As is shown in this article, if a single employee in a warehouse that employs some hundreds of people, acquires the Covid-19 virus, the entire warehouse is closed for an uncertain number of days while being disinfected.  If the virus really takes hold, that could mean that every day the warehouse reopens, another employee tests positive, resulting in the immediate re-closure for more days, and then the same cycle again, and the net result being Amazon’s ability to ship out orders could drop not just by one or two percent, but by ten or twenty or more percent.  This is another example of how the consequences of seemingly low infection rates are massively greater than would be intuitively guessed.

Here’s a damning article that really depresses us.  Most of us have long sensed a terrible level of incompetency in many government departments and their political leadership. but it is only now becoming apparent how lethal that incompetency can be.

Coming back to the tp topic, one of the much misunderstood issues about tissues is that the “flushable wipes” that have become very popular in recent years (and which are being used even more now by people unable to obtain regular tp) are, in truth, not at all flushable, even though their packages promise they are.  Clearly the marketing departments of such companies don’t have much experience working in city sewer systems, and equally clearly, perhaps they should now be required to get some.  This article explains why.

We also noted this article – apparently, diarrhea actually can be a symptom of the Wuhan virus.  So maybe it is appropriate, after all, to stock up on toilet paper.

Talking about toilet paper and stocking levels, many thanks to the reader who sent this link in.  He had one criticism to make, it only would calculate for quantities up to 200, which is much less than his inventory.

If this next Twitter capture doesn’t correctly display in the email, it is probably worth going to the website to view it there.  I found it very funny indeed (but had to explain it to my daughter).

We mentioned, yesterday, the benefit, albeit temporarily, of reduced pollution over China.  Other benefits are that the canals in Venice are clearing, losing their muddy color, and turning blue instead.  Plus wildlife is returning both to Venice and Italy in general.

Please stay happy and healthy; all going well, I’ll be back again tomorrow.

Please click here for a listing of all our Covid-19 articles.

2 thoughts on “Covid-19 Diary : Friday 20 March 2020”

  1. I am continually dismayed by your use of the terms “China virus”, “Wuhan virus”, or other pejorative terms when discussing the current virus. This puts you in the same league as our president, who goes out of his way to use these terms. I even saw a copy of one of his speeches where he used a sharpie to crossout coronavirus and write in Chinese. I’m assuming this is a slip or the tongue. (or pen), and was unintentional.

    You write good stuff, if a little wordy at times.

    1. So, may I ask you, Robert, where do you believe the virus comes from?

      I absolutely intentionally use the correct regional term to describe the origin of the virus. The President prefers to use the national term. Isn’t describing a virus in terms of its regional, national, or animal origin normal? Why should we change our naming convention purely for Chinese-originating viruses?

      How is calling a virus that comes from China a Chinese virus any more pejorative than calling music that comes from China as being Chinese music?

      What should we now call people who come from China? “People who come from a country that is located on the western side of the Pacific Ocean, below Russia and east of Kazakhstan”? “People who primarily speak Mandarin, but also Cantonese and 275 other languages”?

      What should we rename the festival formerly known as Chinese New Year? Shall we remove the country of origin from the abundance of labels currently reading “Made in China”?

      Where should this stop. No more Belgian chocolate? French kissing?? Scotch whisky???

      You’ve been a reader for over a decade. You’re only now discovering that I refuse to accept the shackles of idiotic political correctness?

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