I am going to record some personal observations here, for myself, and for you. I believe that 5 or 10 or 20 years from now, this will be of interest to us. It is March 12, 2020, and the world is experiencing a pandemic from a virus called COVID-19, or Coronavirus. It was first identified in the Wuhan region of China late last year. As of this morning, there are approximately 130,000 cases worldwide, with 4,800 fatalities.
What is happening with regard to this virus is unprecedented. Nothing we have experienced before is like what we are experiencing now. I have experienced 9/11, the Mortgage Meltdown, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and Y2K.
This event is different. This event is different, partly because of how we are acting, and reacting. There have been effects from this virus not only on the health of people, but also on healthcare systems, transportation systems, the global economy, and our educational and political systems.
Before I go any further, I am not giving anyone any advice here. I am not qualified to give advice. I am an author, and I write. I write in order to make sense of the world, and right now, some parts of the world don’t make any sense to me. So I am recording what I see, and what I feel. Much of what I write here will probably not age well. That is part of why I am writing it-to show myself that in the “fog of war”, things that appear to be true may not be.
The Medical Impact:
I am not an infectious disease expert. I am a healthcare professional, but I am going to take that hat off for the next hour, and write this essay as a person.
I have read several medical journals that have classified the infectiousness (R0) and the lethality (R1) of this virus. On average, it appears that each person with this virus will infect about 2.8 others. That is more contagious than the flu. That is important, because viruses have to be spread in order to survive. What is even more concerning is the lethality of this virus. It appears to be more fatal (possibly much more) than the seasonal flu.
If you are over 60, (and especially if you are over 80), this is a bad virus to have. The fatality rate in those age groups is very high. What is most concerning is that there are no treatments for this. If you become infected, the only treatment is supportive (treat the symptoms). The outcomes are worse for those with severe respiratory symptoms, or those with are already immunocompromised.
With all that said, there have been multiple seasons where flu epidemics have killed more than 100,000 people (most recently the Swine Flu of 2009, estimated to have killed 500,000+ people). So I am not sure whether this is like a bad flu season, or whether this is much much worse.
The Society Impact:
It feels weird to write about this. In the past 24 hours, the NBA has cancelled all of its remaining season, and announced that a player has tested positive (two as I review this essay). The NCAA announced that it will play its March Madness basketball tournaments in empty arenas, to prevent the spread of the virus. Tom Hanks and his wife have tested positive. The wife of the Canadian Prime Minister has tested positive, and the Prime Minister is quarantined.
Coachella (a concert) and SXSW (a cultural and arts festival in Austin) have been cancelled. New Rochelle NY, and all of Italy, are under full quarantines. Cruise ship companies are suspending cruises. Airlines are cancelling flights. The stock market has fallen 20%, and as I write this, the S&P 500 is set to fall 7% at the open, and then circuit breakers will kick in to prevent further losses.
There is a type of product we use in 2020 called hand sanitizer. It is a gel that contains alcohol, it acts as a topical disinfectant. You cannot find a bottle of hand sanitizer anywhere, or a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Toilet paper is hard to find (I don’t know why, because this is a respiratory disease). Panic buying is happening.
It may be a coincidence, but OPEC, Russia and the U.S. are in an oil price dispute. Because travel is way down, oil consumption (and oil profits) are way down. OPEC and Russia both want to continue to produce lots of oil, and as a result, oil prices have fallen 30% this week.
My younger daughter is in her first year at a midwestern university. She came home for Spring Break on Friday. Yesterday her university extended Spring Break by 1 week, and then the school is going to online classes for the remainder of the semester. Most colleges and universities are doing the same thing.
The company I work for closed its offices on Tuesday. I am now working from home for the foreseeable future.
My older daughter is working on a Presidential campaign. Most live campaign events have now been suspended, because of fear of person-to-person transmission.
My father is in his 80s, my in-laws and uncles and aunts are all in their 80s and 90s. They are most at risk. I worry about them. The best thing I can do for them (probably) is to maintain some distance from them, so that I don’t get them sick.
I took a four hour pause on this essay, and in that four hour period of time, the NHL suspended its season, Major League Baseball suspended spring training, Broadway has gone dark, and there are new states of emergency in New York and New Jersey.
The county where my father lives has suspended all non-essential activities (entertainment, restaurants, retail, gyms). All schools are closed in that county for 2 weeks.
Nassim Taleb wrote a book entitled “The Black Swan”, that describes rare events. A black swan is an animal that exists only rarely in the wild. Black Swan events are events that occur rarely, are unpredictable, and are difficult to prepare for.
This is a Black Swan event, like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. You can suggest that we could have been better prepared for all of these events (I wouldn’t argue), but we are here today, unprepared for this event.
The most important challenge of this virus is that our healthcare system isn’t ready to handle it. We do not have enough tests to test everyone who needs to be tested, we don’t have laboratories prepared to process that many tests, and we don’t have hospitals equipped to treat severely ill patients in quarantines. Ventilators are (or will be) in short supply. I just read an article about the shortage of intensive care capability in Italy. Physicians in Italy now have to make decisions about who will receive treatment, and who will not (and then die).
As I write this, I am sitting in my living room, looking out the front window. Cars are driving by, joggers are jogging, school buses drop children off. Everything looks normal. But the world is not normal today, and I don’t know when normal is coming back.
I want to finish this with a moment of compassion. I recently read a story about how half of all Americans cannot afford an emergency $400 bill. If that is true, that means that half of all Americans cannot afford any of the societal effects that this virus is causing. (I must remember our friends in Italy, China, and other locations as well). This will have a terrible impact on poor people.
We have children in our local school system who depend on schools to provide them breakfast and lunch. What happens to those children if they are sent home? What happens to my daughters classmates at college, who cannot afford to get home? What happens to people who cannot afford health insurance, and now need it desperately.
I am going to finish this now, and pray for all of us. Each and every one.