Covid-19 Diary : Tuesday 14 April, 2020

 

I’ve an important opening opinion to share today.

The truth of the “debate” about closures and distancing is that, to date, the only people with much of a voice in that debate have been the people who have suffered the least from the measures taken so far.

To be brutally blunt, and despite virtue-signalling protestations to the contrary, few people care what a table-busser in a restaurant thinks about anything, and table-bussers have few media outlets to share their views with, other than being coopted into a story being shaped by someone else.

Politicians and journalists, however – largely enjoying continued employment, same as always – still have their sympathetic media megaphones to shout their views through.  This has caused the debate to be very lopsided.

But that is about to totally change.  The stay-at-home workers, people until now who have been still doing their jobs, much the same as before, getting paid exactly the same as before, and probably even enjoying the lack of commute time, hassle, and cost are about to start losing their jobs too.

This has always been obvious to those who are willing to see – as I said to a complacent unworried friend last week “Yes, you’re a contract programmer and both you and your company can work pretty much the same as always at present.  But what happens when your clients stop ordering more work, because their businesses have been closed or harmed by the closure orders?”

This Wall St Journal article lays it out and identifies many types of workers who felt themselves immune to employment/business problems during this pandemic, but who are now suffering, a trend that will only grow with each passing day.  My sense is that many projections are optimistic rather than realistic, and I fear the future is getting measurably and materially worse with every extra day of closures, because we are switching from temporary “blips” in our economy to lasting structural damage.

Again, the table-busser is not a major contributor to the economy in the first place, and the expectation has been that as soon as the monied classes are allowed to freely move again, they’ll flock back to restaurants and bars and so the table-bussers of the world will quickly return to work.  The restaurant owners and others impacted by the short term suspension of business will (in theory) have received government assistance (in reality, few will be recompensed for much of their closure costs) or they’ll have “just” gone into debt “a bit” and they’ll eagerly resume normal operations.

But, now that the broader middle and upper-middle classes are about to feel financial pain too, all this will change.  Our economy will not recover so quickly.  If the middle class are missing out on their income, the first thing they’ll do when things start to return to normal will not be to spend large on discretionary items – it will be to try and get their credit card balances under control again, their monthly minimum payments down so their discretionary income starts to come back, and to catch up on any arrears on rent/mortgage, etc.

If the currently closed businesses don’t quickly re-open, they’ll never re-open.  How many months of zero income, continued partial expenses, and little or no government support can most business owners afford?

Sure, businesses could stop paying rent, but that doesn’t solve anything, it just shifts the problem (and still leaves the business with other ongoing costs and no income).  With no rent, the building owner necessarily stops paying his mortgage and his land taxes (after all, if it is fair for renters not to pay their landlords, it is fair for landlords in turn to also not pay their ownership costs and obligations), and all of a sudden, we’ve a new mortgage/banking crisis, and the city is finding its revenue base – already harmed by sales tax drops – now dropping further due to unpaid land taxes.  And so they in turn….

You can follow these chains of causality as far as you wish, and none of them end up in any happy place.  There is no magic point in any of these chains where a suspension in normal business trading can be absorbed without flow-on problems.  And there’s a limit as to how many trillions of dollars the federal government can throw at the problem before the directly related inflation that printing all this extra money starts to destroy the economy, for everyone, in a different but simultaneous manner.

It isn’t just chains of causality.  It is loops and spirals of causality.  There is a significant multiplier effect in any economy.  You spend money at Bill’s business, and so he has more money which he spends at Susan’s business.  She hires another worker, who now has more money to spend with Joe, and so Joe spends more money with you, causing you to go back to Bill again, and so on and so on.  But that multiplier works both ways, and now we’re going to see how quickly each dollar not spent will also multiply into many more dollars also not spent, and how those multipliers reach out beyond the obvious to upset every part of our economy.

The WSJ article above cites such seemingly unavoidable “essentials” as attorneys already starting to feel the pinch.  Astonishingly, even hospitals are suffering multi-billion dollar losses.  Everyone will cut back on everything, even so-called “essential services”.

I am not saying we should abandon our social distancing.  Although that too is a topic that needs re-examination, because the to-date obscured truth is that our social distancing is not working the way it should.  If it was truly effective, within a week or two, new cases would have dropped to zero.  But new cases continued to increase, every day since the variable dates in mid/late March when states introduced their various versions of social distancing and are only now, three weeks later, showing some slowing down.  These rates of slow-down are too slow, and are not cliff-edge type drop-offs such as a total closure should create.

Our current approach to social distancing is self-evidently very flawed.  It is analogous to removing a bandaid very slowly.  Maybe it would be better to remove the bandaid quickly.  A much shorter period of total lockdown that actually does shock the virus prevalence in a community down to a very low level, could then be followed by a much more liberal ongoing level of social distancing, because the remaining risk of infection is much lower.

The only good news about this gloomy information is that we’ll start to have a more balanced discussion about what we’re doing.  The guiding light to date has been new media-star/darling Gov Cuomo’s claim that “if all this saves just one life, I’ll be happy”.  That has been eagerly and hypocritically supported by the people for whom “all this” means no sacrifice whatsoever.

Now that those people will start to realize that “all this” means risking a total destruction of their own life, savings, pension, loss of job (with no job to replace it), loss of home, and they, personally, may become homeless and starving on the street, perhaps Gov Cuomo’s “noble” willingness to cause unseen unknown invisible “other” people to accept sacrifices might no longer be so enthusiastically embraced.

Current Numbers

Here are the rankings for the seven states of any size with the highest infection rates.  There is no change in ranking, and three of the countries again didn’t register any new cases today.

  • San Marino/372 cases/the equivalent of 10,963 cases per million people
  • Vatican City/8 cases/9,988 cases per million (unchanged)
  • Andorra/659/8,529
  • Luxembourg/3,307/5,283
  • Iceland/1,720/5,040
  • Gibraltar/129/3,829 (unchanged)
  • Faroe Islands/184/3,766 (unchanged)

Here are the top six major countries, showing death rates per million of population in the country.  Belgium has moved up to second place, with Italy dropping to third :

  • Spain/18,255 deaths/390 deaths per million
  • Belgium/4,157/359 deaths per million
  • Italy/21,067 deaths/348
  • France/15,729/241
  • United Kingdom/12,107/178
  • Netherlands/2,945/172

To put those numbers into context, the death rates per million in the US/Canada are 79/24.  The world average (not a very reliable number) is 16.2.

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

Same Day
Last Week
YesterdayToday
Total Cases1,431,9731,923,7691,997,358
Total Deaths/Percent of all Resolved Cases82,096119,598126,565
Active Cases (ie not yet died or cured)1,047,6681,360,2491,392,467
US Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million400,335/12,841/1,209586,866/23,621/1,773613,624/26,016/1,854
UK Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million55,245/6,159/81488,621/11,329/1,30593,873/12,107/1,383
Canada Cases/Deaths/Case rate per million17,897/381/47425,680/780/68027,063/903/717
Worst affected major country/case rateSpain/3,036Spain/3,638Spain/3,723
Second worst country affectedSwitzerland/2,571Switzerland/2,968Switzerland/2,97
Third worstItaly/2,243Belgium/2,639Italy/2,687
FourthBelgium/1,915Italy/2,638Belgium/2,685
FifthFrance/1,671Ireland/2,156Ireland/2,325

I Am Not a Doctor, But….

Here’s an explainer about how to wear a face mask properly.  It is a new skill for most of us, but a useful one.

One point I’d not entirely agree with – the inability to reuse “one time” masks.  As far as I can understand, why couldn’t they be left somewhere for a few days while any viral particles on them quietly die, and then be used again, and again, and again, with “rest” periods between each use.  If anyone can advise why one time masks can’t be used a second time, please do share.

Who Should Pay?

If we struggle, we can understand some very small part of the reason why airlines get uniquely preferred treatment in the travel industry and much more generous support than other affected travel companies.

But why are airports being similarly gifted with largesse?  We don’t understand why individual airports are being given hundreds of millions of dollars each.  Sure, their traffic and revenue goes down, but don’t their costs similarly decline?

And for those amounts of costs that haven’t dropped, and for any pain thereby incurred, isn’t it fair they too should share at least some of the costs of this terrible problem, the same as most of the rest of us?

Timings And Numbers

This article totally does not surprise us when it says that distancing may need to continue until 2022.  But what we did find interesting was their somewhat gloomy prognostications about immunity and how long it may last.  We don’t view this as a definitive statement, but it is a more negative prediction than others we’ve seen so far.

If you look at the underlying report and raw data the above article was paraphrasing, you’ll see in Figure 6 A & B in particular a suggestion that even an extension until mid 2022 might be way too short.  There are some questions we have with the data being modeled and presented in this article – quite likely being our own lack of understanding – and we view their models as being “good case” rather than “bad case” projections.

This article says it will be hard to “sell” the concept of monitoring people as part of a forward looking concept of controlling future virus outbreaks.  That may well be the case, although stronger minded politicians might be willing to lead rather than follow public opinion on this essential point.

But the good news is that we can kill the virus spread even without 100% compliance.  Just like herd immunity starts to kick in at about 60%, so too does compliance type immunity, too.  Let’s get it up and going as soon as possible, and start to enjoy the benefits associated with it, then optimize as we can subsequently.

Closings

Here’s an interesting article about what percent of US jobs can be done remotely, from home.  But it falls into the trap of thinking those jobs are “safe” and will remain.  As we say in our opening comments, we view almost every job in the US as now gravely at risk, and probably the work-from-home jobs are now more at risk than the “essential service” type “work at work” jobs.

So while we’re surprised at how many jobs can be done from home, we’re neither encouraged nor reassured.

Should you cancel your summer/fall travel plans yet?  This article considers the question.

In my opinion, it is unlikely that summer travel would be prudent or pleasant, and fall is looking less and less certain too; but your personal strategy should be to always wait until the travel providers cancel, thereby obligating them to fully refund you your money, rather than you cancelling in advance and perhaps being imposed a penalty.

Shortages

Here’s another look at Elon Musk’s grandstanding offer to buy ventilators for both California and New York.  He bought the wrong things for New York, and apparently hasn’t bought anything at all for California.

It bears restating that our meat supplies are struggling at present.  And here’s a more general article that spots the continued contradiction between assurances of adequate supply of everything and the continued empty shelves in supermarkets.

Logic?  What Logic?

You’ve got to love the airlines.  They’ve apparently never been taught that “absence of proof is not proof of absence”.

In this article decrying a packed flight between Townsville and Brisbane in Australia (a bit over two hours from memory), Qantas is quoted as saying

there have been no known cases anywhere in the world of people contracting coronavirus on board a plane

But how would you actually know and be able to prove exactly where you caught the virus, particularly now that most/all infections are no longer being traced and are simply described as community transmission from someone unknown?

Detroit is arguing that it should restrict the movement of workers who live in Canada and travel to Detroit to work each day.  They feel this is a risk and might increase the number of virus cases.

That’s understandable, until you consider two points.

The first is that these workers are healthcare workers, providing desperately needing staffing for Detroit’s hospitals.  And the second point is that Michigan’s rate per million for virus cases is 2,712 cases per million.  Canada’s is 717 – almost four times less.  Detroit should be welcoming these people in to the city – they are four times safer than people outside the city limits in the US coming in to the city.

Virus?  What Virus?

China’s virus experimentation on bats in Wuhan, which is generally thought to be the source of the coronavirus, was in part funded by the US.  So maybe the US has to shoulder part of the blame after all?

We can think of some things where China’s cheapness is acceptable, but high risk viral research?  Not so much.

Medical

Talking about bats and their viruses, here’s an article that is not for the faint of heart – there are at least six more coronaviruses in bats, as yet not fully studied (or weaponized).

Why do some people get much more severe viral infections than others?  We understand there are two variants of the virus – one that inhabits the lower respiratory regions and more deadly, and the other which is in the upper respiratory regions and not so deadly.  But there are other factors too.  Whether this research will help us understand and benefit from that understanding is unknown, but it is definitely a good thing to find out.

Pfizer is developing an anti-viral drug that it says is showing promise.  This would be used to treat infected patients, and is designed to be administered to people after they’ve been admitted to hospital (we guess that means it needs to be drip-infused, or patients need to be closely monitored for response and side effect, or something).

While it is good news to know there’s another drug being developed that might help us treat the virus, it isn’t great news.  We’d prefer a “take one pill twice a day” type treatment at home, not a high-resource-consuming in-hospital treatment.  We also guess that Pfizer’s drug will cost a great deal more than the $1 or less for an entire course of treatment that some of the currently being researched already-existing drugs would cost.

We wish Pfizer would focus on these $1 solutions, although we understand why they’d prefer to try and develop a profitable, even if not best, solution.

Here’s another strange if true story – are foot sores an early sign of coronavirus.  As we said once before, while clutching some of our most precious appendages nervously, whatever will be next….

This article details a true hero – one of the volunteers who are trialing out a possible vaccine.  That’s a truly bold assumption of risk on her (their) part, and we should all respect them and their willingness to help.  The only disappointing part of the article is learning that the trial will run an entire year.  We understand the need for caution, but it is disappointing to be reminded that a vaccine probably truly will be no sooner than 12 – 18 months in the future.

The good news is there are now 70 different potential vaccines; three with their clocks already started on human trials, and the others in various stages of pre-human testing.

While the oft-overlooked reality is there’s no promise of any vaccine at all actually working, knowing that we are not betting everything on just one or two possible solutions is encouraging.

Money

The Dow reversed yesterday’s drop, and added some more on as well, closing with a 2.4% upswing to 23,950.

Among surprising winners were cruise lines – Norwegian was up 8.7%, Carnival 8.8% and and Royal Caribbean 13.4%.  This is all the more surprising because Carnival announced it was extending its cruise cancellations further into the future today.

Rumors

We were told, with no source being offered, (source) by a level-headed correspondent who gets things right, that New York has just added another 3,700 deaths to their Covid-19 total, being the deaths of people who never tested positive for the disease, but whom the state has decided can be presumed to have died of it, notwithstanding lack of certainty.

Those deaths have been updated and included into the official 10,834 count.  They represent an increase of 52% beyond the actual confirmed deaths.  That’s a large increase based on nothing other than the apparent desire to make their situation seem more serious than it has proved to be.

Other

Some light-hearted diversions to put a sparkle in your day.

As a New Zealander, I’m of course always interested in sheep.  But even someone who doesn’t so closely embrace the whole “sheep thing” might find this YouTube video fascinating and endearing.

What do you do if you’re a BBC sports commentator and unable to work, confined at home, at present?

Well, you might do something like this.  Or perhaps like this.

 

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 : Tuesday 14 April, 2020”

  1. Great intro today.

    There have been a bunch of posts about putting N95 masks in paper bags for 5-7 day to let the virus die out. Two examples:
    https://www.abc27.com/news/local/harrisburg/penn-state-hershey-med-workers-told-to-reuse-face-masks-for-7-days-store-in-paper-bags-amid-shortage/
    https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/hcwcontrols/recommendedguidanceextuse.html (fairly far down in the article)

    I think the article about Detroit actually says it is the Canadian side that is asking to restrict travel. At least one of the people quoted wanting to restrict travel was from Windsor, Ontario.

    More lighthearted since we used to talk about travel, Windsor, Ontario, Canada is the only Canadian city which is south of any part of the US. Great for virtual trivia night on Zoom meeting.

    1. Hi, Biz

      Glad you liked my intro today. Well, actually, I’d prefer that you could rebut it convincingly, but I’ll take agreement reluctantly on this rare occasion when I’d much prefer to be shown wrong.

      I’ve seen articles about the N95 masks being left and then reused too, wondered if it would extend to the less rugged “surgical” masks, I do think it would with the main factor being when they finally wear through and break.

      A shame that my Detroit story got it back to front. Your version makes much more sense. But as for Windsor being the only Canadian city south of any part of the US, could I politely suggest that Victoria, BC shares that distinction, too.

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