I saw a headline this morning about how we are all living in historic times due to the Covid-19 virus and its impact on the world. I don’t disagree, and so am starting a diary to record the evolving nature of responses to Covid-19, and my own perceptions of this truly unique world development. Wish I’d started it way back in January, when I first started writing about the virus, before it even had an official name, in my weekly newsletters, but better late than never.
This first entry is lengthy, because I’m introducing various topics, and incorporating some material from previous days.
|Total Deaths/Percent of all Resolved Cases||7,128/8.3%|
|US Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million||4,349/77/13.1|
|UK Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million||1,543/55/22.7|
|Canada Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million||406/4/10.8|
|Worst affected country/case rate per million||Italy/463|
|Second worst country affected||Switzerland/272|
Who Should Pay?
The awareness of the direct personal cost to each and every one of us is slowly starting to descend upon people. For a while, I think most people did not see a direct link between the slowdown in travel and their own personal finances. Even, at first, stock market losses seemed a minor thing, but now the impact on people’s retirement investments/savings can’t be denied, and financial difficulties are translating into staff lay-offs. We’re also starting to appreciate that it isn’t “just” the airlines that are and will suffer. Indeed, I challenge you to pick a business, any business (other than specialty medical businesses) that won’t be negatively impacted.
There’s been a general demand by many that the government should make us whole. But, as a friend pointed out, the harm is likely to become so widespread that we’ll end up subsidizing ourselves – similar to perpetual motion, an impossible feat to achieve. But of course, governments can seemingly borrow money without concern, whereas you and I know that what we borrow, we must eventually repay, together with the interest costs incurred. Maybe government “funny money” is the solution. Speaking as one directly and massively impacted, I’d certainly not refuse government support – there’s got to be a first time in one’s life for everything!
But one solution is proving unpopular is in Britain. Virgin Atlantic Airlines and its high-profile founder (but no longer CEO nor Chairman) Sir Richard Branson is following up on its controversial actions with the Flybe Airline (it, together with investment partners, first bought it for pennies on the dollar then immediately demanded government subsidies, and on not getting sufficient of them, is thought to have asset stripped the company and then declared it bankrupt) is now saying it will ask Virgin Atlantic staff to take eight week’s unpaid leave to help the airline weather the Covid-19 slowdown.
On the face of it, dispassionately, and when viewed through the financial lens of a business manager, this might be seen to make sense. But at a direct and personal level, if you’re a front-line employee and suddenly told to expect eight weeks with no work and no income, your life has profoundly changed. There’s of course an unstated extra fear – can I be certain my job will be returned to me, at full pay, at the end of the eight weeks?
This planned layoff has been met with howls of outrage by many in Britain, suggesting that Branson – someone who has celebrated living a luxurious life and usually with a leer on his face and surrounded with a bevy of beauties a la Hugh Hefner – should make a similarly impactful personal sacrifice, rather than ask staff to suffer the consequences alone. While his ownership share of the airline is now small (20% to the Virgin Group, 31% to Air France and 49% to Delta), that hasn’t stopped politicians and people from suggesting he should perhaps sell one of his private islands in the Caribbean to help fund the airline’s needs. Details here.
We expect this issue – how to distribute the cost of the economic impacts of Covid-19 – is one that will grow, as more and more people come to realize this isn’t just something they read about and which happens to other people, but instead is something that will be impactful on them, directly, and substantially.
Hand Sanitizer Saints and Sinners
A headline that Louis Vuitton is repurposing its perfume factories to make hand sanitizer might be thought to imply there will soon be a luxury brand of hand sanitizer, at suitably luxurious prices. In actual fact, no. They are responding to shortages in France, and will donate all the sanitizer they make to hospitals. Good for them. (In a similar but different manner, last week NY State said it would get its prisoners to make hand sanitizer too.)
A different approach to regional shortages of hand sanitizer was taken by an entrepreneurial guy in Tennessee. He bought up as much of it as he could find in small stores outside the main city areas and online, and then started selling it nationally on eBay and Amazon. Of course, this was at a profit. He fell afoul of the new steps by online companies to restrict “profiteering” on such items, and ended up, when this all made the news, with 17,700 bottles (of unknown sizes) of hand sanitizer that he could no longer sell, having been banned from both Amazon and eBay.
A rational person might wonder why eBay wouldn’t allow the guy to simply put the product up through their auction system, allowing the market to sort out whatever a fair price was for the product, but rationality is the first casualty in dire situations.
He ended up donating the sanitizer to a local church.
We’re uncomfortable with this situation. While we hate profiteering, we don’t hate profit, and we love the free market. No-one is forcing anyone to buy his sanitizer at any price, but if someone truly desperately wants to buy some, and is willing to pay two or five or ten times the normal price, is it fair to prevent them from being able to do so? (Note also that we’ve never been told exactly how much the guy’s margins were, and he did incur substantial time and direct costs driving around a 1300 mile circuit buying up hand sanitizer wherever he could.)
As realtors say about houses, a house is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. No-one accuses a home owner of profiteering by selling their house for top dollar. If hand sanitizer is sitting unwanted in a country store in backwoods TN, where is the harm of someone getting it from there and putting it on the open market at an open market price?
If you’re short on hand sanitizer, here is a page of excellent hand sanitizer recipes. Maybe you can buy some of the ingredients and make your own. The only two essential ingredients are alcohol – either ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or isopropanol (iso propyl alcohol, sometimes called rubbing alcohol) and regular ordinary tap water. The target concentration of alcohol is right around 70% – strangely enough, making it stronger actually reduces its efficacy, as does making it weaker.
The Chinese Canary in the Mine
The first thing I do every morning upon waking? Well, after going to the bathroom…. I check to see how many new reported Covid-19 cases there are in China. I’ve been astonished at the collapse in cases in China, and indeed, while China’s outbreak seemed severe, when expressed in terms of cases per million of population rather than in terms of total cases, its severity can be seen as much less than in many other countries.
Using the beyond-excellent Worldometers site (it seems to always be the most up-to-date source), China currently has a case rate of 56.2 per million. The highest rates now go to Italy (463), Switzerland (272), Norway (246) and Spain (207). China is 18th on the list of affected major countries.
Worldometers doesn’t want to show figures per million for very small countries where the difference of one or two cases makes a huge difference to the per million figure, so, for example, Vatican City with one reported case, which would be a rate of 1000/million, is not reported. We understand that, but we wish they’d give a number for places like Iceland, which while it has a small population, is a distinct region and with an active Covid-19 case rate (198 cases in a population of 350,000 which equates to a rate of 566/million). If these smaller countries were included, China’s position would be even further down the list.
Our point about the Chinese canary is that China’s rate of new daily cases actually peaked at some time in early February (apart from one day with anomalous reporting), and for the last week has been reporting fewer than 100 new cases a day, often even fewer than 50. We also understand that many of these new cases are people who are returning back to China, bringing the disease with them, rather than new “community” infections. It seems many Chinese people are eager to return to China now, because they perceive it as having become safer than other western countries.
Has China really and truly beaten its virus? Is it possible for other countries to expect a similarly low total rate of cases if they adopt similarly strong measures to contain and restrict the virus spread? What will happen when China finally completely relaxes its remaining travel restrictions? While the virus suddenly reappear again?
And so that is what we consider the canary in the mine. If China can keep its case count low, even as it now slowly relaxes its internal travel restrictions, there is hope for us all. But if its numbers start to shoot up again, we need to prepare for an extended situation. Hence my (almost) obsessive monitoring of China’s disclosed data – if only I felt we could trust it!
There have been calls for a federal level set of formal orders for closings and restrictions on movement, social gatherings, and other steps to create formal social distancing measures. Certainly it does seem a bit random and strange at present, with different communities, maybe at township level, maybe at state level, calling for different strategies and trigger points in terms of maximum group sizes. Are your schools open or closed? It seems to vary depending on your school district, or maybe county, or maybe state.
The key point that not all our elected leaders appreciate is that the time for closings and restrictions to commence is before there is a problem, not after. If you wait until your community is starting to feel some pain from Covid-19 cases, you’ve left it way too late. It is realistic to assume that for every detected/declared case, there is some additional number of as-yet undetected cases – people who do not yet have full symptoms but who can already pass the virus on to others.
The value in coordinating such things is that sometimes the “top down” view is more appropriate than the “ground zero” view, and also, it makes no sense if closures in one town aren’t matched by closures in the next town over. If there’s an imbalance, people simply move to the place where, for example, the bars are still open.
With the situation as jumbled as it is, and as rapidly changing as it is, too, we can’t realistically hope to provide a complete correct list of closings across all 50 states and 3,142 counties (let alone cities, townships, and “census designated places”) in the US. But maybe we’ll comment on a few that we come across.
Like, for example, California, which closed all bars, nightclubs, wineries and brew pubs today. They also restricted restaurants to only having half their usual number of guests, to provide some social distancing. We hate to see such compromises, because Covid-19 is unforgiving and exploitive.
California also ordered seniors to self-isolate at home. Seniors are defined as 65 and older. This is breaking news. We’ll anxiously await further details of what this self-isolation is, and whether one is allowed to leave home for the purpose of buying food, and what other restrictions or exceptions may exist.
This starts to raise some complicated civil liberty issues. This is not a case of “for the good of the community, everyone must do/not-do something”. This is a case of Big Brother telling seniors that, “for their own good”, they are now imprisoned in their own homes. It doesn’t seem to allow for a 65 yr old to take precautions and to attend to urgent necessary personal matters. It is a “one size fits all” restriction, to one specific class of people, on our First Amendment right to free assembly and movement.
Talking about restrictions on movement, we have to cynically observe the way that countries (and individuals) criticized the US for its early decisions to restrict travel from coronavirus area such as China and Iran, and more recently, from Europe and UK, but are now rushing to do the same.
Some countries are completely closing their borders to all travelers entirely (for example, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). New Zealand announced that all people arriving in NZ – including their own citizens – will have to self-isolate for 14 days. That effectively kills its tourism industry completely. The Philippines has quarantined the largest part of its population from the rest of the country. Canada announced a bunch of travel restrictions today, but any restrictions like theirs, targeted primarily at people already displaying symptoms of the virus are dangerously stupid. The disease incubation time can be 14 or more days – some studies have suggested as long as 37 or more days on occasion – and with people being able to transfer the virus while they don’t have symptoms themselves, it is not enough to only restrict people who are now symptomatic.
The US now seems to be one of the more open-bordered countries!
Symptoms or Not? Infectious or Not?
We want to restate the two similar but different issues we touched on immediately above. There are several possible states for any person to be categorized as :
|State||Infectious||Shows Obvious Symptoms||Clinical Test||Comment|
|Free of Covid-19||No||Possibly shows similar symptoms from other infections||Would test negative||Possible false positive. Might still have a cough, might still have a temperature, but does not have Covid-19.|
|Has Covid-19||Maybe||No – disease is in incubation state, symptoms might take four or more weeks to appear||Would test positive||Current screening and self-evaluation type testing fails to detect these people|
|Has Covid-19||Yes||No, person just has a very mild case||Would test positive||Current screening/self-evaluation fails to detect these people|
|Has Covid-19||Yes||Yes||Would test positive||Current screening/self-evaluation likely to detect these people|
This analysis shows four possible states for anyone. Two of these four states are infectious people who are not detected by simple observation and temperature tests. They can only be detected after a clinical test has been conducted.
It is dangerous nonsense to suggest that doing simple observational type checks and taking a person’s temperature is all that is required to protect a population from the entry/presence of infected people. Some people have such mild experiences with the Covid-19 virus that they don’t realize they have it, but are fully capable of giving the virus to other people, who might then suffer much more extreme attacks.
Other people are at some point in the incubation stage of the virus. They have no symptoms, but they are infected, and they may also be passing the virus on to others at this early symptomless stage.
The only effective screening is to administer a clinical type test. This might require a drop of blood via a pinprick type method, and there are already tests that are able to provide an encouragingly high degree of confidence as to if a person is infected or not within 15 minutes of obtaining a sample. It is too error-prone and limiting to make decisions on a person’s state of possible infection via temperature and observation only.
The time it takes from infection to symptoms appearing seems to typically be about five days. But it seems a measurable number of people take more than 14 days for their symptoms to appear. Should we be requiring longer than 14 day quarantines?
“To hoard, or not to hoard. That is the question.” Paraphrasing The Bard, we’re getting very mixed messages about the concept of stocking up on essential products. At one level, this is a great example of the classic “Tragedy of the Commons” situation; perhaps expressed by the thought “If I don’t get some toilet paper while there is still some available, other greedy people will take it all for themselves and I’ll be left with none for me, so I better get as much as I can while I can”.
There is a lack of self-awareness in that understandable thought, because by acting in what seems like a rational manner, one then becomes, to other people, one of the greedy people.
Just exactly how many days of food and other essentials and supplies should we keep at home? How much is fair? How much is “hoarding” – an increasingly pejorative term that is used to negatively express disapproval of such actions? At the same time some people are telling us not to buy more food than we immediately need, the CDC is recommending that at-risk people should stock up on supplies while being deliberately vague about how much to hold – “enough so that you will be prepared to stay at home for a period of time”. How long is a period? Noting various mooted proposals, and the apparently open ended nature of the Californian restriction, it seems this could be a month or even several months.
One thing is for sure. As long as we are told there is no need to stock up, but at the same time, are confronted with pictures of empty shelves, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that the supply chain is actually unreliable and over-stressed, and you’d be foolish to trust it.
And what are people who are faced with the potential requirement to accept involuntary home confinement for an unknown period of time (as is now the case for seniors in California) supposed to do? Rely on third party food delivery services and pay their extra costs? Or prudently set in a store of foodstuffs ahead of such confinement. What about people who live in areas where food delivery services don’t exist?
The other thing about food delivery services is that we “strategically” shop at the supermarket. We give preference to things we see on sale, and in the fruit, vege, and meat/fish aisles, we buy food that looks good and is suitably fresh. You’ve probably seen, the same as us, avocados that are either solid “wood” they are so unripe, or soft and spongy because they are aged well past their sell-by dates, but still offered hopefully for sale. You’ve probably seen the meat cut that is going grey with age, or the steak that is half fat and bone. We don’t want someone else to be picking those for us. Indeed, we’d even prefer to avoid the damaged cans – they can sometimes have their lining fractured as a result of damage, causing the contents to go off or acquire metal contamination.
Meanwhile, for sure, a lot of people are ordering a lot more of everything on line. Amazon reports that its fulfillment system is now being stressed and deliveries times are stretching out. This will get worse as their staffers start reporting sick, too.
We also have concerns about the ongoing integrity of the entire food supply chain. For now, we feel for all reasons it is prudent to keep at-home supplies of staples and non-perishables at elevated levels. Better to have it and not need it, than vice versa.
This article simultaneously contains reassurances that there is nothing to worry about, and also a request to only buy a week of supplies at a time. We’re happy with the thought of buying a week of supplies at a time, and indeed, it is an essential part of social distancing to make infrequent visits to the supermarket now. But maybe, for a while, buy a week of supplies at a time, twice a week? 🙂
And lastly, there are certain types of “special supplies” that some of the gloomier among us are now anxiously choosing to stock up on. Others of us have already thoroughly taken that precautionary measure, many years before….
According to this survey, one in five people surveyed (20%) expect to get the virus. The interesting thing about that result is the experts who are projecting more like 50% or even 70%. One can only imagine what this would be like. Italy – now at such a terrible point that they are unable to provide treatment to all affected people, leaving some to die unattended, has a titak case rate of a mere 0.05% – one thousand times lower than 50%.
If 0.05% in Italy throws the entire country into chaos, and if 0.005% in China saw it needing to erect emergency field hospitals and essentially lock up its entire population for a month and more (and still continuing to do so), it is impossible to imagine what a 50% infection rate would do to any country, or how they’d respond.
Most respondents expect life to return to normal in 3 – 6 months. That’s surprisingly in line with some projections that look for a peak about 12 weeks after the disease appears in a community/country. But this timing is highly speculative at present, as is the hope that the disease will fade during the warmer summer months.
If the disease does fade during the summer, there is, alas, every chance of its reappearance in the winter.
Virus? What Virus?
Today’s offender is Crerar Hotels in Scotland, sending out emails encouraging people to “escape everything” and go stay in one of their hotels for a short break.
A fairer heading – “Escape Everything Except Covid-19”.
There’s been an interesting revelation from the French. You should not take ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory drugs to treat some of the Covid-19 symptoms. These drugs weaken your immune system, and so allow the virus to take over more of your body more aggressively. Better to stick to Tylenol/Paracetamol/Acetaminophen (three names for the same drug).
In good news, a trial has just commenced today, in Seattle, of a potential virus vaccine. It will take months for results to be determined, but it is a great start, and encouraging to see that the developers were allowed to skip over an intermediary part of the testing process (on animals) as part of a (hopefully prudent) fast-tracking.
Plenty of rumors, of course. Might there be a country-wide ban on all flights? On all non-essential personal movement? These are just a couple of the rumors currently out there.
Lastly for today, what do you do if you’re running out of toilet paper? Apparently some people are dialing 911. On a more serious note, there may be massive problems in store for our sewage systems if people start becoming creative in their choices of tp substitutes.