Covid-19 Diary : Thursday 19 March 2020

It has been another gloomy day with nothing positive to combat the abundance of bad news.

Truth and Lies

Not only has it been a day filled with bad news and negative trends.  Things are probably much worse than any of us really truly comprehend, not only for the reason explained in this excellent commentary, but because we are consistently being presented with “best case” scenarios rather than realistic assessments by the various experts and the media that report on them.  Very few of the official spokesmen and even fewer of the media outlets are accurately reporting the reality of what is happening.

While the truth is out there if you look for it, it is being greatly downplayed, perhaps understandably in a desire to avoid self-fulfilling panic, and perhaps also because some of the possible scenarios seem to be improbably bad and therefore best not mentioned.

We’ve already seen how massively the stock market has been collapsing – not based on present realities, but on future fears (although one could also make a case for the market being overdue for a correction and this has merely been the spark to initiate the correction).  So there are valid reasons for seeking to play up the positive.

The twin truths that are being avoided are how long our fight against the virus will last, and how severe and impactful the measures we must take will be.

I keep seeing various closures that are often described as being for two or four weeks, or maybe until the end of April (six weeks) or some other date.  Occasionally there is a minor footnote type disclaimer that the closures might extend.  But we’ve only once seen a notice of a lengthy closure and a minor footnote comment that it might perhaps be shortened if circumstances allow.

The lie in all of this is there is almost no reason to expect that in 2/4/6 weeks, the situation will be better than it is today.  Quite the opposite.  Even the most optimistic projections/predictions suggest that there’ll be no peaks anywhere in the US for at least another 45 days, while the majority of projections point to greatly extended time periods – typically 12 – 18 months – before our battle with the virus is finally won (with the ultimate, if not only, “win” being the creation and distribution of a vaccine).

There is a possibility that things might temporarily improve over the summer due to warmer weather shortening the viable time the virus can live outside a host, but even if we lighten up on restrictions for some of the summer, we’ll still need to re-institute them as we transition to fall and the cooler weather again.

That’s a terrifying thought for a huge range of businesses, and I don’t think many of the directly affected, let alone indirectly impacted, businesses have yet accepted the reality of this.  Expect massive business disruption and inevitably total business failures, across the board, between now and all the way to the end of 2021.  An extra 90 days to pay our taxes seems rather laughably inadequate as a response to that.

Which brings me to the second truth – how extensive our response to the virus needs to be.  At the present rate of case growth in the US, we’ll be at the same level of cases per million of population as China, in two days.  We’re currently at 42 cases per million, and that has been increasing by about 8 per million a day.  So in two days we’ll be at possibly 58/million, slightly worse than China.

But unlike China, which started to decline its rates of new infections when the case rate was around 36/million, we’re already past that point and our infection rate is still skyrocketing with each new day.  China – the original poster child for all that was dangerous and scary about the virus, has now become the shining example of how to address the infection and contain/control it.

42 countries now have higher infection rates than China.  It is likely that tomorrow the UK will pass China in terms of infection rates,  Greece and the US a day after, and many small countries too.

There’s a lesson within China’s experience.  It became rapidly infected because it ignored the infection, and then it contained and constrained the cases by taking draconian measures to prevent its further transmission.

As you can see below in the “Virus?  What Virus!” section, major sectors of our society are still ignoring the infection, or, perhaps worse, acknowledging its presence, but boasting they are not scared of it.  Until we transition from the ignore stage to the draconian containment phase, we can expect our case numbers to increase.

How far can they increase?  Well, look at Italy – now with an infection rate 12 times that of China (679 per million) and a still accelerating rate of daily growth.

But Italy’s rate translates to a still very low rate in percentage terms – 6.79 hundredths of one percent.  Experts are projecting total infection rates that, if no effective counter-measures are adopted, could grow to 60 or 70%.  In other words, take Italy at present, and multiply it by one thousand to get a sense of what a real worst case scenario could be.

Italy, at its current rate, has already seen its healthcare system collapse, with sick people, whether with the Covid-19 virus or anything else, being turned away from hospitals and left to die.  Multiply that by 1,000.

That is the other truth that we’re being “sheltered” from at present.  But, here’s the problem.  It is only by shocking and scaring us that our social leaders are likely to encourage our support and willing participation in the extremely “un-American” controls and restrictions that are now needed.

We need to be told that if we don’t adopt very strong measures now, we too will be dying in the streets, and when we dial 911 for paramedics (or fire or police), our calls will go answered, because the first responders are similarly afflicted, and those who are still available are beyond overwhelmed.

As Dr Fauci said last weekend, you should be “over-reacting” at present.  We all should be.  Our authorities should be mandating it.

It is a shame the media and our political and social leaders aren’t telling us the reality of what we’re facing.  This unwillingness to tell it like it is will cost us hundreds, possibly thousands, maybe even much greater numbers of needless extra deaths and suffering.

The Blame Game

One more comment before moving on to the day’s statistics and other considerations.  I read this article earlier today, and of course have seen dozens of similar articles over the last few weeks.  A hospital in Colorado is agonizing over running out of supplies.

Curiously absent from the article though was any acknowledgement of culpability.  Now, if you’re a Democrat, that might be a truth that doesn’t need to be stated – sadly, too many people are unable to view this matter other than through a political lens, and are seeking to blame President Trump, personally, for everything to do with the virus.  They’ve smoothly switched between blaming him for overreacting when he started to institute controls of people coming from infected countries to the US, and now are blaming him for not doing enough.

But, if we can struggle to move beyond that perspective, is it really Donald J Trump’s personal responsibility to ensure that a hospital in Denver adequately stocks personal protection gear?  Does he get a daily report of every hospital in the country and its inventories of everything?

What about the hospital administrators – are they not the people paid extravagant six figure salaries to manage these issues?  What were they thinking during January and February and the first half of March?  I don’t mean to boast, but it was obvious to me, and I wrote to that effect, that in mid January we were confronting a likely massive problem.  I’m not a healthcare professional, my main focus is travel and technology, but even from that view of the world, it was obvious in January that the world was changing.

There were professional articles back then observing the evolution of the Wuhan virus threat and its potential implications for us all.  Why did that hospital ignore them?

Two possible answers.  Blithering incompetence, or a blinkered drive for profit “at all costs” and an unwillingness to spend more money to grow a larger inventory of needed supplies (even though extra supplies are a balance sheet, not a P&L item).

We poke fun at people buying years worth of toilet paper, especially because of claims that not only is there no increased need for toilet paper at present, but also there is plenty available and more coming all the time.  But, get this.  Ordinary people know to plan and prepare and stock up for supply disruptions.  Why don’t hospitals know this, too?  It isn’t as though the money they spend on protective gowns and masks is wasted money – they’ll use them, anyway.  Instead of a one or two week supply, at ordinary levels of usage, why didn’t they start ordering a one or two month supply, or even a full year supply, back in January?  Or February, once the warning signs were impossible to ignore?  Why are they now surprised?

We talk about the need to “smooth the curve” to buy us time to plan and prepare for the virus and its impacts, to ramp up our facilities for coping with the virus, and to spread the impacts more broadly over time.  That is all true, and indeed, it is not just true, but a simplistic truism.  It isn’t original thinking, it is a well-known “best practice” and has been for decades.

Every extra day we can “buy” is beyond precious.  But what about the wasted two months up until now, when everyone who should know about such things have been asleep at their respective switches?

Statistics

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/72/1,474
  • Vatican City/1 case/the equivalent of 1248 cases per million people
  • Iceland/330/967
  • Andorra/74/958
  • Liechtenstein/28/734

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

YesterdayToday
Total Cases218,953244,799
Total Deaths/Percent of all Resolved Cases8,943/9.6%10,030/10.3%
Active Cases (ie not yet died or cured)125,394147,362
US Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million9,261/150/2813,795/207/42
UK Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million2,626/104/393,269/144/48
Canada Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million727/9/19873/12/23
Worst affected major country/case rate per millionItaly/591Italy/679
Second worst country affectedSwitzerland/360Switzerland/488
Third worstSpain/316Spain/387
FourthNorway/293Norway/330
FifthIran/207Austria/242

Italy today passed China and is now the country with the most deaths, even though it has barely half the number of reported cases.

Just about all the major countries were reporting increasing rates of daily new cases, particularly the US which skyrocketed up from about 3000 yesterday to probably ending today with almost 5000 new cases today.  Only Italy had more new cases on Thursday than the US.

We also note with concern the continued steady growth in death rates as a percentage of all closed cases, now on the high side of 10%.

Who Should Pay?

More calls for support, particularly airline based support.  This is further proof that the airlines have one of the most effective lobbying structures of any industry.  Yesterday the US carriers were asking for $50 billion for themselves, plus $8 billion for freight carriers and $10 billion for airports.

Today the “Airline Passenger Experience Association” (a fancy way of saying a group of companies that make equipment such as seatback video screens) have asked for a further $12.5 billion to be added for airline suppliers such as, ahem, their members, and $250 billion in total globally.

We feel we must point out that a large part of the reason the airlines are now claiming devastating financial harm is because of their imprudent management over the last some years.  The airlines are a classic example of the Biblical adage of seven years of feast alternating with seven years of famine – the industry goes through a regular cycle of ups and downs, and for the last seven years or longer has been enjoying record profits most years and by most airlines.

But the Bible goes on to urge people to set aside allowances, during their seven good years, so they are able to handle the inevitable seven bad years that follow.  What did the airlines do?  They rewarded themselves with extravagant salaries and bonuses (not just senior executives, senior pilots too are back to the crazy-high earnings of a quarter million dollars a year or more for working half-time each month, plus a raft of lovely benefits), they rewarded their shareholders, they spent money to buy back their shares, and they kept precious little left over in available cash to draw upon in any future downturn.  They also clearly didn’t invest in any types of business insurance policies to protect them from risks such as a global pandemic.

Please don’t say “there was no chance of foreseeing a global pandemic”.  We’ve had several massive disruptions over the last decade or two.  The various bird/swine ‘flu event, 9/11, 2008, spiralling fuel prices, and SARS.  This latest event is actually totally foreseeable and totally unsurprising.

So the airlines are in essence saying “we spent all the money we made with no thought for future needs, now we want you to compensate us for our thoughtless extravagances”.  That’s a bit like going to an insurance company and filing a claim, adding a little asterisk on the bottom of the form saying “Sorry we never bought a policy from you, and never paid you any premiums, but we’d like you to reimburse us anyway”.

Timings

As I mentioned in my introductory comments, we’re getting very mixed messages about how long it will take for us to emerge out the far end of this process.  Here are some recent articles, read through them if you wish, and see if you can come up with your own thoughts and prediction.

A former FDA commissioner says he thinks the virus will peak around late May to early April.  Note that just because that is when the virus might peak, it doesn’t mean immediately afterwards we can relax the necessary controls and restrictions that caused the virus to peak (and start to decline).  My continued enormous fear is that China will start to slip back into the grasp of their virus as soon as they complete removing their presently still-mainly-in-place controls.

The British Prime Minister says Britain can turn the tide in 12 weeks, but didn’t explain how much longer, after “turning the tide”, restrictions and hardships would remain, other than to end up a stunning series of empty blustering comments with the weakest of all statements, describing the process as being “finite”.  Whatever that means.

The Australian Prime Minister, when locking his country’s borders, said the crisis could last six months.

The Economist Magazine’s Economic Intelligence Unit weakly hints there might be a lessening of cases over the summer, and predicts it will become an ongoing seasonal affliction every winter.

An “infectious disease specialist” vaguely says the virus will be present for “many many months“.  He also said “This is hard.  This is really hard”, and pondered the possibility of an 18 month lockdown.

A 100 page federal plan anticipates a pandemic that “will last 18 months or longer” and could include “multiple waves,” resulting in widespread shortages that would strain consumers and the nation’s health care system.

This article says that there is no definite end for San Francisco’s indefinite lockdown.

On the other hand, this article is headed “No, We’re Not All Going to Have to Stay Home for 18 Months”, but other than noticing the somewhat gratuitous ad hominem attack on a Republican politician who never actually said we’d have to stay at home for 18 months, doesn’t actually seem to have any expressed rationale for its optimism, merely hoping that maybe a vaccine might be developed and distributed in less than 18 months.  So color us unpersuaded.

When I match these various projections up with the bold brave statements from local businesses and my daughter’s school, talking about closures “from an abundance of caution” for a few short weeks, it is hard to believe they truly will re-open their doors in the timeframes hoped for.

Closings

I mentioned yesterday that New Zealand had earlier instituted a mandatory 14 day self-quarantine for everyone entering the country, whether they be returning NZ citizens, or foreigners.  The problem, I pointed out, was that while the NZers themselves seemed to be good at honoring the requirement, too many of the foreigners were not.

So, unsurprisingly, yesterday and with only a few hours notice, the Prime Minister stated that effective from midnight last night, no more foreigners would be admitted, no matter what.  Oh – one major exception – health care professionals are still welcome to come and help out!

The Prime Minister made the interesting point that every one of their now 28 cases was either a person who had arrived into NZ from overseas, or someone closely associated with someone recently arrived.  They are still optimistically hoping they can stamp out the virus completely, especially if they prevent new cases from coming in to the country. In the case of a small island nation, this might even be realistic.

We wish them well.  For the sake of completeness, the country that we NZers sometimes refer to as “our third island” – the slightly larger country to the west – has also locked down its borders too, while petulantly claiming it did so on its own, not as a response to NZ’s actions.  Both Australia’s international airlines have now cancelled all their international flights, of course, and Qantas now has 150 planes parked on the ground and is laying off two thirds of its staff, telling them they can look to get jobs at Woolworths, stacking shelves instead.  Woolworths is a sort of very much smaller version of Walmart.

The airline’s CEO (an Irishman, not Australian) virtue-signaled by saying he wasn’t going to take any more salary for the balance of their financial year.  The financial year ends fairly soon – not 31 December, but 30 June.  So much for that sacrifice – I think he is currently the highest paid CEO in all of Australia, so can afford a three month loss of salary.

We’ve lost count of other countries that have also instituted complete border lockdowns – indeed, in some cases, the complete lockdown is even excluding their own citizens wanting to return home.

What does it actually mean to be quarantined?  That’s something that varies between different countries and states, but here’s an interesting explainer.  It really is almost the same as “home detention”, but necessarily/unavoidably so.

To end this part on a positive note, more and more stores are including an hour or so of time each day they are open exclusively for seniors and “at risk individuals” to go and shop.  That’s an interesting idea, and as one who is now the far side of 60, I was glad to see that Walmart, in announcing their policy for this, are defining seniors as anyone over 60.

Shortages

I wrote in my introductory comments about the two big lies (or, to be more gentle, “obscured truths”) at present – the length of time it will take to get through these trying events, and the extent of the response needed to beat the virus.

There is another third statement of dubious veracity too, and that is the “there are no shortages” claim that is repeatedly being made, usually and strangely illustrated with a picture of empty shelves in a supermarket.  We’ve been told to expect a flood of toilet paper hitting the stores any day now.  But even the (linked above) 100 page federal plan refers to “many shortages” (although primarily of medical supplies, not tp).

Here’s an interesting article about foods that might come in and out of stock, and some interesting statistics on the most popular items currently being purchased.  Oat milk?  I’d not been familiar with that product, and after now researching it, remain puzzled as to its popularity, because it has as short a shelf life as regular milk.

That is truly a bizarre part of stocking up – I’ve noticed stores limiting the quantities of milk and eggs people can buy.  But milk (and eggs to a somewhat lesser extent) have a very short shelf life.  What’s the point in getting a month or two supply of milk, if in two weeks, it has gone off?  At least tp keeps for years.

There’s also a new code-phrase to describe items in short supply.  Items that are delayed This article talks about online grocery orders and their matching delivery services that are now taking many days to be fulfilled, and when the orders finally do arrive, missing some of the items that had been ordered.

One unexpected item that is becoming in short supply is one we can’t stockpile.  Internet bandwidth.  I’ve definitely noticed slowdowns in connectivity and some websites loading, and even one night recently had a streaming video I was watching pause and rebuffer before continuing.  That hasn’t happened for years.  The reason – a stress on the internet backbone caused by more people either working from home, or at home with nothing to do and simply streaming videos to fill in their days.

The EU has asked Netflix to reduce the quality of its video streams so as not to overload the European internet circuits as much as it apparently has been doing, and Netflix immediately agreed to do so.  That’s not surprising, because these days Netflix is increasingly having to pay bandwidth type fees to get its streams served through the major internet backbone providers, so if they can claim to be reducing their bandwidth costs in a public-spirited manner, you know they’ll eagerly do so – a bit like hotels asking you to accept their cutbacks on room servicing and towel swaps so as to save the environment.

The streaming speed slowdowns haven’t yet happened in the US, that we know of.

Logic?  What Logic?

I received an email last night from the utility company that provides my gas and electricity supply.  While they are a for profit public company that only makes money when they sell their product to their customers, they are strangely obsessed with selling less of it, and have come up with a novel approach to making life at home “more comfortable” during a forced lockdown situation.  They wrote, while being delicate about the reason why we are “spending more time at home” :

Many of our customers, just like us, are spending more time at home. Here are some things we can do to save energy at home:

Set your thermostat 7-10 degrees lower.

Set your water heater thermostat to 120 degrees or a “low” setting.

Quite apart from the very dubious nature of their advice to lower the water heater thermostat setting, who really wants to drop their home living temperatures by 7°-10°?  Most of us rationally choose a compromise temperature that is comfortable but not excessively hot, and trimming that back by up to 10° would see us having to wear gloves and scarves and overcoats, indoors.

Here’s an asinine to the point of offensive expression of political correctness about why we should not refer to the current virus as the Wuhan Virus, even though that it where it is from, and is consistent with all past viral naming conventions.

Among other idiotic “reasons”, the writer imagines that a non-English speaking Chinese person living in Wuhan will somehow know and be offended if you refer to the Wuhan virus to a friend, thousands of miles away.

Newark, NJ, is introducing a nightly curfew as part of its attempts to limit the spread of the virus.  Apparently they believe the virus is like a vampire and only attacks at night.

Virus?  What Virus?

There’s a slew of new articles about Spring Break celebrations in Florida, and the passive lack of action by Florida in doing anything substantial to prevent the absolute opposite of the “social distancing” that is being advocated and required everywhere else.  For example, this item, and another one headlining the governor’s refusal to close the beaches.

The interesting thing about this is that younger people are not as invulnerable as they might think they are to the virus.

Medical

I find it hard to adequately convey the loathing and disgust I feel about the World Health Organization, and their passive role in the Wuhan virus situation.  They’ve been terribly slow to acknowledge its severity, they resisted declaring it a pandemic for a ridiculous amount of time even though their own definition of pandemic (present on two continents) had long since been passed, and they seem more worried about what it should be called than how to solve the problem.

When has WHO actually been ahead of the curve with this?  What have they tangibly done to help resolve its spread?  I’m unaware of positive answers to either question.

The reason I’m saying this now is that a couple of weeks ago, I referred to research findings showing how the virus could be “aerosolized” – meaning that it can be carried in smaller droplets that stay suspended in the air for longer.  This requires additional protective protocols.

I’ve also observed with surprise and concern how the incidence of infections (and even deaths) has seemed distinctively high among the healthcare professionals working with infected patients.

And now I read that some sleepy official at WHO has finally discovered the same thing that a humble travel writer – me – wrote about two weeks ago.  They have now announced that the virus can be aerosolized and are considering a recommendation for additional precautions for healthcare workers.

Do they have no sense of urgency?  No awareness of the tragedy of losing healthcare professionals?  It only takes a factory a few hours to make another respirator.  It takes many years to train another doctor or nurse.  Protecting the medical staff has to be an essential priority, because they are the most critical and irreplaceable element in the entire care system.

Mind you, Italy has an interesting idea.  It is pressing almost-graduated medical students into service as doctors.  And Britain is bringing back retired doctors, re-instating their credentials/licenses.

Here’s a very negative estimate – perhaps half the world will be infected with a fatality rate of up to 3%.

But, if you’d prefer, here’s a very positive estimate which we don’t exactly follow or understand, suggesting a fatality rate of only 0.125%.  We understand the article is merely an abstract/summary of a more detailed article to follow, so perhaps there is more convincing detail in the full paper to come.

Here’s an interesting article for smokers to read.  Yes, you already know smoking is bad for your health, etc.  You’ve heard it a million times and still smoke.  But did you know smoking seems to increase your chance of dying from the Wuhan virus fourteen-fold?  That’s a huge risk increase.

It is not a good time to get unwell for any reason, and requiring any sort of treatment at all.  Even cancer and heart surgeries, and even in the US, are now being delayed.  We wonder if the death counts for the virus also will include the “collateral damage” caused by delaying such surgeries because of hospitals being too full with virus sufferers?

Do you want to get tested for the virus?  There have been shameful delays in deploying test kits, but on the other hand, it is our guess that probably 90% of all people clamoring to be tested are actually not at all infected with the virus, and a test is only valid for that particular minute.  Hypochondriacs who feel the desire to be tested today will likely wish to be tested again tomorrow, and the next day, and so on.

Or will they?  We were puzzled at President Trump’s passing comment that the test process he underwent was unpleasant.  What could be so unpleasant about a quick nasal swab, we wondered?  Here’s the answer to that, including the memorable phrase “like being stabbed in the brain”.

Money

The Dow Jones staggered upwards slightly today, closing above 20,000 at 20,087, a 0.95% rise for the day.  Oil prices remain very low, at a level that kills US production and new oil well development.

Astonishingly, some sources are projecting oil prices could drop to as little as $10/barrel.  That’s an unthinkable number and very harmful to our country, economy, and oil self-sufficiency.

We’ve been assuming that the plunging stock market has been reacting negatively to the growing closures and lockdowns, but here’s an article suggesting that a countrywide lockdown might boost the share market.  Let’s hope the article is correct, because we probably will be considering a countrywide lockdown soon enough.

And while the news is full of the harm being suffered by restaurants, this article points out that the restaurant industry had already moved far ahead of the curve in terms of what could be supported by the eating population it caters to.  Maybe this is a correction that was going to happen, in part, anyway.

Rumors

Will there be a ban on domestic air travel?  Will all of London be locked down, and, if so, what exactly would a lockdown comprise?  A similar question is being asked about New York, too.

Not only might London be locked down, there’s a rumor being promulgated online that the entire country is considering instituting martial law, whatever that means.  They have had a problem with some groups of people refusing to comply with requests/orders to restrict their movements, so this is not impossible.

Other

The good news about China had been that the drop off in industrial activity had cleared away a lot of the pervasive pollution that hangs over China.  There have been times, in the past, where I’ve felt almost claustrophobic when in China, never clearly seeing the sun through the smog – even in the middle of the countryside, as well as in the big cities.  A lot of that cleared, however, in a clear sign of China’s recovery, it is returning again.

I wrote yesterday about Las Vegas closing its casinos and just about everything else.  Indeed, it is pretty much all of Nevada that is closing.

In a manner reminiscent of restaurants switching to providing take-out food, one “service provider” in Vegas has come up with a drive-through style of, ahem, “peep show”.

Showing that innovation isn’t limited only to the sinners, but also is shared by the saints too, a priest is now offering drive-through confessionals.  So I guess you can go first to the first place, then hurry on to the second place and receive forgiveness.

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.

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