Covid-19 Diary : Wednesday 18 March 2020

I’m starting to wonder and worry if we’re all suffering from Covid-19 burnout, and if these diary entries are contributing to it, and all the more so because today is a long entry.

What had been envisioned as short entries are proving to be quite mammoth tasks, due to the flood of information each day and the rapidly changing situation.  Truly, information that is half a day old is often already obsolete and invalidated by subsequent updates.

Then there’s the fact that so little of the news is good, and so much is bad.  With that in mind, here’s an article on how to remain emotionally resilient during these testing times.

Early today the total number of Covid-19 cases soared through the 200,000 mark, and now, late in the day, it is at 218,953.  Yes, there’s been a huge leap in total cases – over 20,000 in a single day.

It was a joyless St Patrick’s Day for many yesterday, with so many bars and restaurants closed, and special celebrations cancelled, even in Ireland itself.  But some foolhardy/selfish people insisted on public celebrations.

I wrote yesterday about my experiences going to a nearly empty Costco yesterday.  That provoked a comment from a reader who sent a photo of another, and nearby Costco, with a huge long line of would-be shoppers, stretching way out into the carpark, all waiting for their turns to be admitted to the store.  I guess I lucked out, and now I’m feeling anxious about my next Costco experience, whenever that might be.

I’ve not actually brought inside my house the purchases I made from Costco yesterday.  Call me excessively cautious, but I sprayed them all with a super-powerful disinfectant yesterday, and am doubling down by leaving them in the car for a couple of days before bringing them into the house.  You might feel this is an unnecessary extra precaution – indeed, it probably is.  But it does not create any inconvenience for me whatsoever, so why not do so.

Talking about food, here’s a helpful article to keep in mind, particularly as we risk a retreat from fresh food to canned and frozen and processed type foods.

Here’s an interesting article about symptoms of the viral infection.  Note that, eg, “Fever 88%” doesn’t mean if you have a fever it is 88% sure you have the virus, it means that 88% of people with the virus have a fever. That’s a big difference, because lots of people – the vast majority – who have a fever don’t have the coronavirus.

Here is, without a doubt, the absolutely best explanation I’ve ever seen, anywhere, of how social distancing and other strategies work to contain the virus.  By all means read the text, but for sure, do scroll down to see the simulations that explain the various strategies.

I started to list the various countries and regions with new border closures and other movement restrictions, but there have been so many as to make it impractical.  Suffice it to say the world is slowly but certainly shutting down.

Scary news from where I live, in King County, WA.  They say

COVID-19 is spreading in King County, with hundreds of cases having been reported to date. We expect the case count to double every 5–7 days unless these orders to stay away from others are followed diligently. Already, we can expect that anyone we come into contact with may be infected because there is wide-spread infection in our community.

Cases doubling every 5 – 7 days?  And the likelihood of anyone we come into contact with being infected!!!!  That’s a very big statement to make.

Talking about big statements, I’ve been approached by a gun-hating friend, asking for some emergency training and help buying a firearm, something I’d never have expected to hear from her.  She is alarmed by the growth in home invasion style burglaries in other states by people wearing masks, and had a masked person come to her door saying he was from the gas company and asking to be let inside so he could read the gas meter.

She was aware enough to realize that her gas meter was outside not inside, and refused to open the door, at which point he left and she observed him getting into a regular car and drive away, rather than into a gas company utility van with signage on the sides.

That is something to keep in the back of your mind, too.  People with a mask on are not necessarily who they say they are, and already, some people are seeking to exploit this situation in bad ways.

Statistics

Our main resource, the wonderful Worldometers site, finally did something we’d asked for a week back and added a measure of cases per million of population to all minor countries as well.  They also reduced the precision of the numbers from showing a decimal place for all cases to now only showing that for countries with a less than one per million infection rate.

The new more complete data shows a major rework of the top five countries.  Whereas Italy is leading major countries by a wide margin, when we look at all and small countries, the new ranking of top five countries sees Italy drop to seventh place.

For the record, the new top five are

  • San Marino/140 cases/the equivalent of 4,126 cases per million people
  • Vatican City/1 case/the equivalent of 1248 cases per million people
  • Faero Islands/58/1,187
  • Liechtenstein/28/734
  • Iceland/250/733

But we’re going to limit our own reporting, more or less in line with the earlier Worldometers analysis, and consider countries with more than 500 cases.

Otherwise, the anomaly of The Vatican, with a single case but a huge rate per million, and other not quite so extreme examples, would continue to distort the overall shape of what is happening.

YesterdayToday
Total Cases197,766218,953
Total Deaths/Percent of all Resolved Cases7,954/8.9%8,943/9.6%
Active Cases (ie not yet died or cured)108,121125,394
US Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million6,211/102/18.89,261/150/28
UK Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million1,950/71/28.72,626/104/39
Canada Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million479/5/12.7727/9/19
Worst affected major country/case rate per millionItaly/521Italy/591
Second worst country affectedSwitzerland/317Switzerland/360
Third worstNorway/271Spain/316
FourthSpain/253Norway/293
FifthIran/193Iran/207

We’ve tried to give a sense of the change in data from day to day by showing both today and yesterday numbers.  We’ll add a “one week ago” column in time to come as well.

It would be interesting to also show new cases per country per day, but this is difficult, because of different time zones and different reporting processes in each country.  We can observe that yesterday, at a time when pretty much all results were in for the day, the countries with more than 1,000 new cases were

  • Italy – 3526 new cases (and now, today, 4207)
  • Germany – 2095 new cases (2960 today)
  • Spain – 1884 new cases (2943 today)
  • USA – 1748 new cases (2960 so far today, possibly over 3000 by the end of the day)
  • Iran – 1178 new cases (1192 today)
  • France – 1097 new cases (1404 today)

It is worth noting on the second line the statistic for deaths as a percentage of all resolved cases (9.6% as of today).  This, like all other measures of how fatal the disease is, can be argued as not being a fair measure.  Certainly, it suffers from the weakness of not all cases being reported, but that’s not a great weakness.  If it is thought of as being “If you’ve a case that is actually detected, this is your chance of dying from it”, that incorporates that limitation.

It is also true that some people might “die quickly” instead of taking a long time in critical care and then surviving, which means the death rate might be a bit high.  But this is something that tends to balance out over time.  Here’s a chart through yesterday of the respect survival and death rates, and you can see how the death rate started high and then steadily trended down.  Not so obvious due to the chart’s scale is how the death rate bottomed out at about 5.6% on 7 March, and has been rising again ever since.  That’s not a welcome trend.

Other and official measures of the fatality rate for the virus range from below 1% up to 3.4%.  This chart suggests that all such measures are optimistic rather than realistic (or at least, are using very different definitions and methodologies).

Encouraging news is that South Korea seems to be getting its numbers under control.  It had 84 new cases and 6 new deaths yesterday, and 93 new cases and 3 new deaths today, which sees it reporting fewer than 100 new cases for four days in a row. Peak was reached on Feb. 29, with 909 new cases.

China also continues to show very little new case activity – 21 new cases yesterday and 34 today.  Iran, with 1,178 new cases yesterday and 1,192 new cases today, still has a lot of new case activity but is no longer showing an increasing daily rate of new cases.  Yes, I know 1192 is more than 1178, but only by 1% – that’s a random variation, not a significant increase.

The interesting map I linked to yesterday is being updated it seems, showing cases by state in the US.

There’s a great reader comment added to yesterday’s diary entry.  The comment points out the problem most people have in visualizing exponential growth and its implications, and poses the question :

Suppose you have a 3 acre lake and 1 x 3 inch evasion lily pad gets in.  It reproduces daily (so 2X per day).  The lake will be full of these lily pads in 48 days (and perhaps kills all the fish).  How many days until the lake is half full of Lily Pads?

The answer to the question is obvious when you think about it, but also totally unintuitive for most people.  Here’s a link so you can read the comment (and to check your answer).

Here’s a dismaying set of projections about the inadequacy of hospitals in the US to handle likely Covid-19 cases.

Who Should Pay?

The New York Times describes questions about the cost and effectiveness of preventative measures as being taboo.  Certainly many people, in government and out, in the US and in many/most other countries, seem to be urging enormous responses by the government to the definitely real financial losses that everyone will be suffering.

But government money is not “free”.  It has to come from somewhere, and if the government just creates money from nowhere, it creates a risk of inflation and other economic disruptions.  Sometimes, it is true the inflation risk is an acceptable trade-off as part of minimizing a more pressing and severe problem, but all these talks of trillion dollar spending programs have currently unexamined future downsides and costs.

Not only that, but there are no clear guarantees or certainties that the trillion dollars and more (likely much much more) will actually succeed in achieving their objectives – heading off a recession, protecting people and businesses harmed by the virus, and also protecting us all from the virus.

With that in mind, here are a couple of interesting articles that dare to break the taboo, one in the Wall St Journal, and one at Reason.com.

We’re not for an instant disputing the problems being created by this virus – indeed, and alas, I’m a poster child of someone who has seen the largest part of my livelihood destroyed for the next who-knows-how-many months (or even years).  I’ll appreciatively accept any support the government chooses to hand out, but as a self-employed individual, most of the mooted programs will pass me by.  Unemployment pay, sick pay, guaranteed wages, corporate subsidies, etc – none of those apply.

While low interest rate loans might be helpful, they extend rather than resolve the problem to people like me.  When you’re suffering from a delayed or deferred income item, a loan is a great way to help, sort of like a bridging loan between buying one home and selling another.  But when you are instead not just delaying the receipt of money, but losing a chance to earn/receive that money entirely, a loan and the interest cost associated with it doesn’t “make you whole”, it merely extends the agony.

Yesterday there were suggestions the government might give everyone $1000.  Today that suggestion has increased to $2000.  We eagerly await tomorrow’s perhaps even more improved version!

The US airlines have now asked for $50 billion for themselves, plus another $8 billion for freight-only airlines, and another $10 billion for airports.  To put that request in context, after 9/11 the government authorized up to $10 billion in airline payouts, and ended up only releasing $2 billion.  And Boeing, in a bad financial way, but due to its now more-than-a-year grounding of the 737 MAX, has decided to hop a ride on the money train too, asking for $60 billion.

That’s probably just the start of travel industry claims.  This article estimates, based on the current situation, an $809 billion hit based on decreased travel activity, through the end of the year.  And that is just for the travel industry, and just through the end of this year.

Is it right that greedy airlines should get a $58 billion bailout, and airports a bonus $10 billion bailout too?  We’d certainly like a chance to drill down into those numbers to see how they are calculated.

This article about whether we should support the airlines is very sensible.  I’m predisposed not to want to subsidize airlines who have shown, with their extortionate policies combined with outrageous rewards to their own senior executives, that they are not “on our side” at all, but quite the opposite.  Alternatively, I’d be very comfortable with the concept of strings being attached to any grants – the money being lent rather than gifted, or handed over in exchange for equity, or requiring the airlines to adopt some more user-friendly policies in return.

It would also be nice to see every airline executive earning more than perhaps $200k to have all their earnings over $200k reduced to one tenth of what they currently are, and for airline execs earning over $1 million to have the excess over that reduces to one one-hundredth of what they currently are (or any other sets of adjustments you think fairer).  In my example, someone earning $300k would now earn $230k and someone earning $2 million would now earn $290k.  There is no justifiable reason to say that a person earning a mid/high six or seven figure income needs government support.

The same of course with all other industries the government chooses to support.  It is time to start closing the gap between average and highest paid employees.  It used to be only moderate in size, but for the last 40 years or so has been growing ever more extreme.  Depending on the numbers and exact time frame, it is now suggested that the average boss is earning about 300 times more than the average worker.

The result has been what would have been unthinkable 40 years before – massive growth in support for socialism type concepts.  When you see your boss earning two or even ten times what you earn, you feel good, but when you see him earning one hundred or 500 times what you do, how can anyone feel good about that?  The solution isn’t socialism, it is simply to restore fairness to the now too-extreme gap between the top and bottom tiers of earnings in all scenarios.

One more condition we’d apply to government loans.  No dividend payments to shareholders until the loans have been fully repaid.  Dividends are an optional discretionary payment on “spare” money.  Too many companies have been focused on “shareholder value” and are starting to view dividends as compulsory – the poster child for that attitude being Boeing, where they have even borrowed money to pay dividends.

That is so so wrong by all normal standards of how companies are financed as to be impossible to understand.  Interest payments are compulsory, dividend payment are not (with some special case exceptions).

Closings

As we said above, the rate of closings is multiplying even faster than the virus.  Here’s a list of more than 60 major retailers that have closed in the US already.

But things are not quite as completely dire as they may seem for retailers.  An article about Nordstroms closing their retail stores mentions in passing that Nordy’s nowadays gets one third of all its business through its online website.  We’re still getting email promotions from them, and we guess they (and many other retailers) are hoping to salvage at least some of their business by redirecting it to their websites.

That’s not to suggest that closing their stores is a trivial consideration.  Not at all.  It is a terrible crushing blow to the companies and their employees, and while many companies are bravely talking about protecting jobs and wages at present, how long will that continue for?  And, in the case of Nordstroms (and others), where a large part of an employee’s earnings is commission from the sales they make, how will that be handled?

We were surprised to see Vegas, “the city that never closes”, is, ummm, pretty much closing. For an entire month.  To start with.

A comment.  We consider it unlikely that any of the scenarios that talk about closures for two or four weeks, or even all the way through the end of April, will see the closed businesses re-open as currently hoped for.  More realistic projections are suggesting things will continue to get worse for 8 – 12 weeks before peaking (New York is saying 45 days but it is already further along the curve than most states, now having almost three times as many cases as any other state), and who knows how much longer, after the peak, closures and other restrictions will remain in place.

Look at China – it has not only peaked (it did that over a month ago) but its daily cases are now down to little more than a dozen or two a day.  But most of its travel and business restrictions are still in place, and much of the reduction of restrictions that are sometimes referred to now happening in China are not blanket removals of such restrictions, but rather are selective – “If you can prove to us you are not infected, we will let you ….”.

A common statement is that most restrictions will need to remain until there’s a vaccine freely available for all, and that seems to be about 18 months out.

To end this section on a happily positive note, along with all the closures, there’s one “opening” of sorts to report on as well.  Some National Parks are waiving their entry fees during this crisis.  But others have closed entirely, and some, while remaining open, have closed their visitor centers, shops, and so on.

Shortages

Here’s an article (a representative one of many) that manages to simultaneously tell us there are no shortages, and also to blame us for the shortages that, ahem, are officially not present.

The more we see articles telling us there are no shortages, and urging us not to stock up on products that are allegedly not in short supply, the more anxious we become.  We’re none of us fools.  We can see the empty shelves, the rationed quantities of other items that remain in stock, and possibly experience the long lines to get into local stores.  Tell us, after waiting two hours to get into a store that we should only buy enough food for a day or two, and also tell us there’s no reason to worry, and we can read through that bs in double-quick time.

So I’m resolved to continue buying “comfortable” quantities of food, rather than inadequate quantities.  You should, too.  And, if there truly are no shortages, as we’re told, then there’s clearly no harm in doing so.

Talking about “no shortages”, Amazon has decided to suspend the handling of what it terms “non-essential items” due to being too busy fulfilling orders for essential items.  What are non-essential items?  They’re not saying, but they have described essential items as being “household staples, medical supplies and other high-demand products”.

Apparently Amazon has redefined itself from being a bookseller and then a general supply merchant selling everything from everyone, everywhere.  That is its right, of course, but the problem is that there are not many (any?) other general online retailers of “everything”.  That’s one part of the problem by allowing a single company to become so extraordinarily dominant across such a huge broad industry.

Another part of the problem is there is less surge capacity and redundancy, because there aren’t a lot of other companies offering similar services.

We’re uncomfortable at the combination of on the one hand, many/most/maybe-soon-all regular retailers closing their storefronts, and on the other hand, the biggest online retailer suddenly curtailing their former broad range of products they will supply with short lead times.

Logic?  What Logic?

We understand the concept of restricting travel, but when countries such as Australia (and many others in a similar situation) now say, in effect, “You can travel anywhere within Australia, but you shouldn’t go outside the country” that doesn’t always make sense.  Australia has an infection rate of 23 per million.  In actual fact, an Australian would be well advised to hop across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, where the infection rate is only one quarter that of Australia (6 per million).  Of course, NZ isn’t having any of that, it is requiring all people entering the country, even return citizens, to self-quarantine for two weeks.  But it is also discovering that with no practical way of enforcing that requirement, some visitors are not doing the self-quarantining they have been required to do as a condition of being allowed into the country.

We mentioned in the preceding section about the prevalence of articles saying “there is no shortage, so don’t buy much”.  Here’s another twist on the same thing – an article that sets out to “prove” that we don’t need to have an adequate supply of hand sanitizer.

There are two major flaws in its arguments.  The first is a claim that we would only need to have a two week supply of product.  While the self-quarantining concept is generally two weeks, the growing number of blanket regional wide “lockdowns” are for much longer, and in reality, are open-ended and could continue for who knows how long.  Sure, there are generally some provisions for going to buy food, but if you can’t get the food when it is your turn to go buy some, what do you do then?  It is short-sighted to think that we never need more than two weeks of product on hand.

The other major flaw is how they calculate our usage of hand sanitizer (we’re much too polite to critique their puzzling analysis of toilet paper usage).  Yes, we understand that washing hands is better than using hand sanitizer.  But to match their example of using the sanitizer after each visit to the toilet, how about the example of a shopping trip.  We use hand sanitizer liberally on the shopping cart or basket and on our hands when entering the store, maybe at least once more while in the store, then again after we’ve loaded the goods into the car and before we get into the car ourselves.  If we go to a second store, repeat all the above.  So a single shopping trip could involve up to ten squirts of sanitizer.  And if we are traveling with someone else, rather than solo?  Double the squirts.  At the article’s usage rate of 9 squirts per ounce, we’ve used two ounces of sanitizer for a single shopping trip to two stores.  We also suspect our squirts are larger than the laboratory minimum amount needed.

So how many weeks and how many shopping trips do you want to plan for?  I’m noticing the dismaying rate that I’m using my sanitizer at present.  But I’ll definitely not be short of tp for some time to come.  🙂

Here’s another of those “is this all a terrible mistake” type articles that we read hopefully, only to usually be disappointed by.

The author’s estimate that no more than 1% of the population will get infected is so far below that of other analyses as to give one huge pause for thought and concern about the rest of his analysis.  Basing his fatality rate estimate on a single data point – the Diamond Princess cruise ship – is also a very narrow and atypical base to build such a broad conclusion from.

I desperately hope both this article and other similar ones are more right than wrong.  But I also can’t ignore the deafening chorus of contrary voices.  So I think the only part of the article I can heartily endorse is the headline – we – including the author – are indeed all making decisions without reliable data.

We’ve watched with incredulity and dismay at how China is trying to change the narrative that the virus originated in Wuhan, suggesting instead that it was a US originating virus.  This is a change that anti-US countries are eager to join China in seeking to promulgate.

There are other narratives also being subtly changed.  Europe last week was complaining about President Trump’s “hasty actions” and “over-reactions” in restricting travel from Europe to the US, but has now announced much broader travel bans on people wishing to travel to Europe.  We have no problems with them choosing to do that, although really, their problem is not people from outside of Europe coming to Europe, their problem is people moving within Europe.  Have a look at the statistics above – almost all the worst outbreaks are within Europe’s borders.

The part of their announcement that did burn us up is Europe is now saying the US has underestimated the impacts of the virus much more than Europe.  That’s not just a lie, it is a terrible lie.  Which was the first country to restrict travel from China and then Iran?  The US, not Europe.  Where is the lowest incidence of infections at present?  The US, not Europe.

Virus?  What Virus?

Talking about lies, the most fundamental lie of all seems to be that some people don’t need to worry about the virus.  This is a good article on the topic.

To our horror, we are still seeing articles such as this one – a woman who returned from Europe and Britain to the US on Sunday and wasn’t screened for the virus.  How is this possible?

We wonder about the good sense in starting off the traditional Olympic Games torch carrying ceremony.  What do you think the chances are of the Olympics proceeding in July?

Medical

Should you wear a mask?  Here’s an interesting article on the subject.  The key point it makes correctly is that a mask does not thoroughly protect you.  It actually does a better job of protecting the people around you, rather than of protecting you.  It captures more of the virus when you breathe out, than of the virus when you breathe in.

We think the recommendation not to wear a mask in the US is based more on a desperate shortage of masks rather than on the underlying realities.  It makes no sense when we’re told to keep as far away from other people, that we’re not also advised that wearing a mask is a socially-positive way of reducing the threat we pose to other people, plus, even a 10% or 20% reduction in threat to ourselves is also appreciable and beneficial.  Although with masks currently seeming to cost about $1 each, and only good for a short shift of wearing at a time, I’m not sure the cost/benefit is yet very favorable.

This article written by a group of doctors should be considered a must-read.  It also has a great list of recommendations.

The NY Times just can’t help itself.  Here’s an interesting article with a great slider chart that you can adjust to work out the implications of your own best guesses as to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

An interesting part of the chart is a helpful series of indicators for other ways people die each year.  Except that, just like how Europe can’t talk about its own belated responses to the Covid-19 pandemic without including a gratuitous and incorrect dig at the US, the NYT none-too-subtly slips in a little lie in the chart, showing that 39,000 people died from guns last year.  That number includes suicides and lawful shootings, the actual number of unlawful deaths is massively lower.

Have a play with the sliders, though.  What do you end up estimating total deaths as?

Here’s an interesting tip – stop wearing rings and other hand jewellery.

Money

The Dow Jones Index dropped 13% on Monday, then recovered 5.2% on Tuesday before falling another 6.3% on Wednesday.

Other

The TSA has made a couple of common sense changes to their screening procedures.  They’ll now let you onto a plane with up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer, and you can show an expired driver’s license as ID (in case you wanted to renew your license but the renewal center is closed).  Thank you, TSA.

To lighten things up, here are some jokes about our present predicament.

Deserving of special mention are the people who believe (hope) that all life’s problems can be magically cured by dialing 911.  I find it rather depressing – we used to be a nation of can-do self-reliant people, and now we’re a nation of people who automatically respond to any challenge by seeking help from someone else.  Like, for example, the people who are now calling 911 to report their neighbors have coughs.  Not sure if they are asking for the paramedics or the police to attend!

And lastly, it is one thing to have secured a supply of toilet paper.  It is another thing entirely to safeguard it adequately.  As this unfortunate lady found out.

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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