Eugene Linden
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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...


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Maddening Numbers

Monday March 02, 2020

The way in which the media and policymakers are using the numbers on coronavirus approaches insanity. Most of the numbers published are about as credible as Trump’s estimates of the size of his inaugural crowd. Absolutely no one with any expertise believes that China has only 80,000 cases of the disease. The number could be off by a factor of ten or a factor of 100. And yet the media dutifully reports the daily increments, which also could be off by a factor of 100. I doubt that the reporters writing about the disease believe the numbers, but that hasn’t stopped them from writing a flood of stories about how China has gotten control of the outbreak. And, in turn, we see a bunch of stories about how China is to be applauded for its methods in containing the outbreak.

We also don’t know how many people have died from the disease in China because there’s a mountain of evidence that many coronavirus deaths are not reported as such. So, we don’t know the numerator or the denominator for calculating the mortality rate, at least in China. 

Similarly, we don’t know whether Iran had a few hundred cases last week, or 23,000 as reported by the BBC for the same period. The numbers are probably more honest coming out of South Korea and Italy, but these countries simply don’t know how many infected people are circulating because many are not being tested, and test results lag by a week or more.

Does anyone really believe that if Singapore has 106 cases (and the country has set the standard for diligence on the disease), that surrounding Malaysia, with nearly six times the population, has only 29 cases, or that nearby Indonesia, with nearly 50 times the population, has none? India has roughly the same population as China, and a 2000 mile border with the county, but is reporting 5 cases of coronavirus!

I recognize that it’s always a problem finding credible numbers for casualties as a story unfolds, whether the catastrophe be a hurricane, tsunami or an earthquake, but these numbers usually converge after a week or so (though it took Puerto Rico many months to adjust its absurdly low calculation of deaths from Maria and Irma). With coronavirus, it’s been months since the disease emerged, and also more than a month since Lancet, medical journals, institutions, and epidemiologists challenged the numbers coming out of China; and yet the media still reports China’s official reports down to the last digit, giving an utterly unwarranted patina of authenticity and precision to what is most likely a number massaged by a political committee.

I also understand that news outlets also feel obligated to report some number. What’s to be done? It’s a complicated problem, because some nations do try to responsibly report numbers, while others may alter what’s published as politics interferes. The solution may be the same that cognitive scientist George Lakoff proposed for dealing with Trump’s lies – surround each dubious or untrue statement with a “truth sandwich.”  With regard to China, it might be a parenthesis following any such number; e.g., “… China reported 209 new cases on Thursday, a drop of 27 new cases from the previous day (official numbers reported by China should be treated with skepticism as they are not used in epidemiological modelling by many institutions dealing with the coronavirus)…” This is similar to what some economic commentators do with China’s official numbers on the country’s economic growth.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely, given constraints on space that most publications and newscasts have to live with. What can and should happen, however, is that journalists, pundits, and news commentators cease drawing conclusions from China’s numbers (and those of a few other countries) about whether the disease is contained, and what works in halting the spread of the virus.  

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.

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