How to Outsmart a Plague
beating coronavirus before it beats us
NOTE: LAST UPDATED 3/15
Let’s Talk About Coronavirus
People don’t know what to think about it, how scared to be, how to prepare, how bad it will get, how our government is handling it, how our government should be handling it, and more. Where on the spectrum of overblown seasonal sniffles to plague-like pandemic does this flu-like disease known technically as COVID-19 (caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus) reside?
Many of us have developed varying degrees skepticism toward the media by now due to much of the media’s frequent tendencies toward sensationalism in general, so how do we take it when we’re hearing that entire countries are getting locked down, and the national guard was just called in to help contain a new quarantine in a New York City suburb? Film festivals, political rallies, and even major league sports seasons are suddenly starting to get canceled left and right.
I live in New York City myself, and I’m starting to see more masks, gloves, and nervous faces on the subway every day. Wall Street sure seems to be afraid of it too, with the Dow Jones plummeting over 8,000 points (over 27%) in recent weeks at the time of writing this piece.
Let’s do a sanity check on the common reactions and talking points about this thing and see if we can gain a little clarity and perspective on just how bad this could get and what we can and should do about it.
The Skeptics — “You’re not going to get sick and nobody you know is going to get sick.”
People are pointing to the still-quite-low total numbers of cases of infection as a reason to write off the virus as non-newsworthy.
However, what they’re failing to account for is COVID-19’s high level of contagion, difficulty to detect, inability to test effectively, and lack of a vaccine. All of these factors increase the overall danger of this pandemic, especially now that it is being reported in most of the world’s countries.
And, counterintuitively, the fact that it doesn’t have the nightmare-inducing mortality rate of other diseases of recent memory actually means it is more effective at spreading to massive numbers of people. If it doesn’t kill you or confine you to your bed, you’re out in the world and much more able to share the bug with your fellow citizens.
What’s more, in comparing coronavirus to the common seasonal flu, which itself kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, coronavirus is estimated to be 1.5–2.3 times more infectious and 10–50 times more lethal. Please take a moment to let that sink in.
This thing is just getting started, and the window to stop the spread is narrowing very rapidly, if it is even still open at all.
Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch thinks there’s no way to stop this thing from spreading far more significantly, and he predicts that, without strong countermeasures, “between [20–60%] of the world’s adult population could end up infected with coronavirus.” That’s a number in the billions. Even with a lower-end mortality rate estimate of 1%, that means tens of millions of deaths, at minimum. If this thing isn’t slowed down, and if just about everyone gets this bug, you will almost certainly know people who will die.
Maybe that seems far-fetched. You might point, as Trump did in the tweet above, to the fact that we’re still at only about .001% infection rate for the global population, and even less in the United States. But one must understand, here, how exponential growth works. This video provides an incredibly helpful visualization of this phenomenon.
One bit of hope comes from the possibility that the coming warmer weather might help slow or delay the outbreak, but even that is highly uncertain. It all comes down to the growth rate, as in how quickly and unrestrictedly the virus is allowed to spread.
We’re in a situation of when, not if, this deadly disease spreads, and to what extent. At this point, many more people will die regardless of what we do, but the video above should hopefully make it crystal clear just how incredibly important efforts to contain and slow the virus are.
The Defeatists — “There’s not really anything we can do to stop it.”
I know it sounds stark, but please do not despair. That’s the last thing we should do. While the math can be incredibly daunting, we are far from powerless. We have many tools at our disposal, and they can be incredibly effective in saving a countless number of lives and helping us avoid an enormous cost to society.
If you dig into the ongoing number tallies, you can see very clearly that the moment a country takes a hardline approach to stopping the spread, their growth rate of infections goes from exponential (curving faster and faster upward) to linear (plodding along slowly). China was in exponential-growth-mode until they cracked down incredibly hard, and then their cases essentially discontinued. Italy experienced exponential growth until they recently quarantined the country, and then their growth slowed significantly, although they may have waited too long. The United States, on the other hand, is still in its exponential growth phase, likely with far more actual cases than is being reported, and it won’t stop accelerating until we get serious.
See if you can spot the approximate date when China and South Korea started taking dramatic action to prevent the spread of coronavirus (source):
In simpler terms, undertaking significant inconvenience now prevents an incredible amount of hardship later. The U.S. — and every nation — must act boldly and quickly in the face of this threat.
We’ve yet to see any comforting level of success in slowing the spread of coronavirus outside of China and South Korea, and an increasing number of countries are looking a lot like Italy and the U.S, and the charts for the overall global epidemic are back into exponential growth as well. Because of the large number of cases in China early on, the chart was dominated by the Chinese outbreak until about March 4. When the outbreak became serious enough in other countries to push the global numbers back into exponential growth. On March 10, the WHO officially labeled coronavirus a global pandemic. As of March 13, there are more active cases globally than there ever were in China.
In another month or two, it’s very possible that the early section of this chart between January and March will look like hardly a blip compared to where the numbers of infected will have ascended by that time.
Remember that Harvard epidemiologist, Marc Lipsitch, who said that half of all humans could get this virus? He wasn’t kidding.
He also said, however, that there’s still a lot we can do to get in the way of it and to seriously hamper that growth rate. He said that if we engage in “population-level” strategies like “canceling public gatherings, potentially closing schools … working from home, and other kinds of ways of reducing contact between people,” the outbreak could slow or stop well before it hits those exponentially terrifying numbers.
Clearly, the timing of strong action is quite crucial, too. The more we hesitate as Italy and the U.S. did, the exponentially harder it will become to slow, let alone stop, the spread.
The Hale, Hardy, and Incredibly Misguided — “Even if you get it, you’ll be fine.”
Many out there are saying that because the mortality rate is somewhere between 1% and 5% and the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are by far the most vulnerable, that people of youth and health need not really worry about this. The feeling is that, even if we get it, we each have a quite low chance of dying. We absolutely need to nip this sentiment in the bud as quickly as possible.
Setting aside the fact that this is an extremely (if unintentionally) callous and heartless way to look at the dire consequences for our parents and grandparents and other elderly or unwell loved ones and fellow citizens, this is also an incredibly dangerous mentality for society to adopt, logistically speaking, even for the younger and healthier. Yes, the mortality rate is significantly lower than, say, SARS or Ebola, but that’s actually one of the factors that makes coronavirus so potentially deadly.
Coronavirus still requires a fairly large percentage (about 15%) of victims to receive serious medical aid, as in hospitalization. To put it bluntly, our medical facilities simply do not have the carrying capacity for the kind of care we’re going to need if we don’t slow the outbreak significantly.
For one thing, we are woefully short on the equipment (masks, gowns, respirators, etc) that we’re likely to need:
Based on the models, U.S. health care workers would need two to seven billion respirators for the least- to most-severe possible scenarios. That’s up to 233 times more than what’s currently in the Strategic National Stockpile. (source)
Who gets to use the respirator when a hospital only has one left and three elderly patients, a mid-40s individual who caught a bad case, and a child with an immuno-deficiency condition are brought into the emergency room in respiratory distress? Who do we make roll the dice for their life? Who gets sent home with a tragic apology? Whose family has to watch them suffer and die unnecessarily? What about when 50 vulnerable people come through that door? What about 1,000?
As the number of people requiring intensive care and not receiving it increases, so then will the mortality rate, and so then this flu will become more and more of a killer.
And what about hospital staff? The more the outbreak catches us unawares, the more our nurses and doctors will become ill and have to undergo quarantine, further diminishing the carrying capacity of our healthcare system. Notice, in the animation above, the changing shape of the red line that represents our treatment capacity. Put simply, the more we act quickly, the less of our medical care capacity we lose in these early weeks.
I beg you not to lean on your youth or health as a reason to take this virus lightly. We all need to be serious and proactive in beating back this outbreak together. When your elected officials ask you to practice quarantining, social distancing, and even frequent, rigorous hand-washing, please follow those guidelines as religiously as you can possibly manage.
The Disempowered — “I have to work in order to pay my rent, feed my kids, and survive.”
There’s another very serious issue we face when it comes to containment: financial insecurity.
I mean, how the hell are we going to ask people to self-quarantine for two weeks when 3/4 of Americans are surviving paycheck to paycheck? Not everybody can just buy a few weeks of groceries and take a Netflix staycation. If we seriously want to ask people to stay home, we have to make it safe for them to do so. Quite simply, our dog-eat-dog economic system, left to its own devices, will fuel this crisis faster than anything else, because it forces people to get out and about to fend for their very livelihoods.
The False Solutions —” What if We Help Workers?”
As of March 11, the reaction in the United States has been lackluster at best, with the Trump administration unfortunately minimizing the extent of the problem and covering up its sluggishness to act. Refreshingly, though, they have just now started making some noise about helping those who can’t normally afford to stay home.
So far, however, their suggested solutions have been woefully inadequate, even counterproductive. Their primary suggestion so far is a reduced payroll tax. If we think it through, a reduced payroll tax is actually an incentive to go to work, because you’ll get to keep more of your earnings under that scenario. If you stay home, you still get nothing to help keep you solvent during your time away. This is the opposite of what we need. Perhaps it’s a naive ploy to try and keep up voter support coming into the election, but I’m fairly confident that they’ll have to get much more serious very quickly or face dire electoral consequences from a public that feels left out to dry at their most vulnerable.
Similarly, in New York, Governor Cuomo has called upon businesses to “split shifts” and let people work from home where possible. Working from home certainly makes great practical sense, but what difference does it make who’s working behind the counter at the physical store? In truth, having more workers pass through an establishment each day only seems likely to increase the risk of spread. Brick and mortar stores need to be able to limit hours and their employees need to be able to stay at home when necessary.
In better news, a democrat-sponsored bill was just passed that will expand both medical coverage and assistance for workers forced to take leave as well as businesses losing income. And yet, as positive as this step is, is doesn’t help the many people working on a gig or contract basis, or those unemployed, to bunker in and quarantine safely.
An Actual Solution— “What if We Help PEOPLE?”
One thing that’s very important to point out right away is that the U.S. is made extra vulnerable by how many residents do not have health insurance, thus making it very likely that many will avoid reporting to get tested. This issue is among several being represented very diligently by man with bigger audiences than I, so I’ll stick to an equally crucial issue that has not yet received adequate attention.
What’s also needed, among these other measures, is direct cash in the hands of people in distress. We literally need to pay people to stay home, because that’s the most valuable thing they can do for society in this crisis. The easiest way to achieve this is to put cash into everybody’s hands, immediately. What’s needed is some form of universal basic income (UBI).
Some places are starting to get wise to this. Japan is now preparing to give parents $80/day to stay home with their children, and Hong Kong is setting up a one-time $1,200 stimulus for its adult citizens to help weather the difficulty and keep the economy running. Australia, too, is planning to start putting cash in its citizens’ hands.
Even more reassuringly, a growing number of Americans are waking up to the immensely beneficial possibilities of a UBI-style stimulus. Jason Furman, the former top economic advisor to Barack Obama who 3 years ago argued against UBI, is now calling for a cash distribution of $1000/month/adult and $500/month/child to every American household as a safeguard for our citizens and a stimulus for our economy. Make no mistake, this is a temporary UBI he’s proposing, and it will absolutely help save many lives if passed.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, too, is now championing UBI as part of the solution. She understands that we have to do more than help businesses and banks. We have to help people weather this virus and the coming quarantines safely.
House Representative and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard has maybe taken this the farthest yet, introducing House Resolution 897, a bill to grant a monthly $1,000 to every American adult until the virus threat passes. If you want to do something today you can call your congressperson and ask or demand they support H.Res.897.
NOTE: You may phone the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. A switchboard operator will connect you directly with the Senate office you request. You can also CLICK HERE to easily write all of your representatives at once. I tried it. It’s very easy. Please do it.
It Always Comes Back to This — “Do You Always Have to Make it About UBI?”
Yes. Yes I do. That’s my thing. I write about UBI. But I’m not wrong here.
Please understand. UBI isn’t “free money.” It isn’t a handout. It isn’t a libertarian trojan horse. It isn’t a Silicon Valley scheme. It isn’t even welfare.
UBI is Power to the People. Period.
When our people are empowered, they are able to resist domination by an employer, a spouse, a viral outbreak, or any other disaster. They always have choice and agency. And that is crucial in a time of crisis.
And please don’t tell me I’m a guy with a hammer and everything looks like a nail. UBI is not a hammer; it’s a multi-tool. Cash is simply a medium of currency. It can be used for anything. It is the easiest way to deliver that Power to the People to do with it whatever needs doing in their immediate circumstances.
It’s also not a panacea, and we mustn’t expect it to be one. UBI, rather, is a foundation upon which we can build. All of our other efforts and programs can be orders of magnitude more effective if our people are made intrinsically stronger and more self-reliant. Along with UBI, we will still need to take many other strong steps to defeat this pandemic.
By the way, this need not be just a temporary fix. When this virus passes into history, a continued UBI would continue to help us deal with our many other daily disasters, both individual and communal, from hurricanes to layoffs to heartbreaks. Shit happens, and it never stops happening, and we can always face it better when we have guaranteed security in the form of a steady income.
The coronavirus just might test our society beyond anything we’ve seen in decades. Will we pass this test? It will certainly be painful, but can we use the opportunity of this shared catastrophe to come together, beat back the worst of its potential consequences, and emerge stronger?
Maybe it takes a pandemic to realize just how important it is for people to never have to wait for the government to rescue them before they can start taking action for themselves, before they can feel protected. Maybe it takes a national crisis to see how important it is to strengthen every link in the great chain that is our nation.
If there can be a silver lining to this particular disaster, I sure hope that’s it.
- Take the coronavirus seriously
- Obey the quarantines and restrictions
- Get hip to UBI
- Call ((202) 224-3121) or write your representatives and demand swift action on H.R.897
Want to read more about UBI? Here’s a handy list of links to all my Medium pieces on basic income.