Category Archives: Coronavirus

We Are Not…

Democratic politicians have been going on and on of late about the United States’s, and more specifically President Trump’s, rotten response to the coronavirus.  But as I had written about New York City and the coronavirus in May, there are factors in play beyond the actions of our leadership.

We are the United States.

We are not China:

Besides being the origin of Covid, China is an authoritarian state, with government control over pretty much everything.  We yowl about how President Trump wants to get rid of the free press (not true, but that’s in issue for another day), but in China, there is no free press.  Our cell phones surveil us in the name of better advertising; their cell phones surveil them so that miscreants can be thrown in jail.  They tell us they’ve had 85,351 coronavirus cases as of this morning: that’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.  We’re up to 7.2 million: still number one, although we may be overtaken by India at just under 6 million.

We are not New Zealand:

New Zealand is an island nation, separated from the rest of the world by thousands of miles of open ocean, well aware of how they are biologically separate.  They can enforce quarantine at the border, and if cluster of cases pop up, they can apply lockdowns to suppress the infection, with an immediate goal of ending the restrictions and returning to normal.

We are not South Korea:

Korea isn’t isolated, particularly from China.  But they were able to mount an effective response to the virus.  To do this, they had an agile government and business response, and a culture that respects its government and can accept the notion of continuous, automated surveillance in the name of public health.  The result has been effective contact tracing that focuses public health efforts where they’re needed.  We were told at the outset of the emergency about Korea’s wonderful testing program.  To date, they’ve done enough tests to cover less than 5% of the population.  Our figure is over 30%.

We’re not Ghana or Liberia:

The poorer nations of Africa have done better at containing Covid than most of the richer nations of the world.   Some of them have more public health experience, having dealt with far deadlier viruses; some of them admit the use of hydroxychloroquine, which is in common use against malaria.  But a big factor is that relatively few people travel there, few enough that quarantining and contact tracing really works.

But we’re the United States:

  • We’re not an authoritarian state (yet!).  We have a free press that can report the truth, except when it’s politically incorrect.  They can report what the government says, or not, as they see fit, and shade it with derision when they see fit.  They’re also free to exaggerate and spread fear rather than enlightenment: whatever sells newspapers.
  • We’re not isolated from the rest of the world.  In normal times, thousands of travelers entered and left the United States every day.  We initially chafed at the notion of closing the borders before embracing it.  This is a big difference, because we let the virus in and let it take root, because…
  • We’re not agile.  We’ve done about as well as can be expected in making plans and ramping up testing, but we’re collectively pretty rotten about anticipating problems.  Governor Cuomo shut down New York in stages, from 13 to 22 March.  If he had done it all at once on 13 March, it would have made little difference: people were already staying at home and not going out.  (And the virus was already spreading.)  If he had done it all at once on 13 February, there might have been a difference, but there was no sense of urgency back then.  Moreover, in the absence of a ‘genuine’ emergency, any government proposal that affects people’s livelihoods will be subject to intense lobbying and complaint.
  • We’re not trusting of our government, at least many of us aren’t.  I’ve written in these pages about the apparent futility of embarking on a contact tracing effort after the virus is already in the community: it appears useful only as practice for some more nefarious form of tracking and control.  I’m sure I’m not alone.
  • We’ve decided that hydroxychloroquine is a bad idea, even though it has been recognized as effective against other coronaviruses, and has been successfully used against Covid in other parts of the world.
  • And another thing: the United States is considerably larger than New Zealand, South Korea, Ghana, or Liberia: large enough that the virus will propagate through the states at different times, at different rates, with different effects.  There is no single policy that will work everywhere.

The benefit of hindsight suggests that we might have avoided all this trouble if we had closed our borders and kept everyone else out from, perhaps, sometime in January.  But even if we had known what to do back then, and the consequences of inaction, would we have done it?

Masks

OK, I wasn’t smiling. But it illustrates the concept….

When the coronavirus first emerged as an issue in February, I contemplated whether it would be useful to wear a mask.  Some people in New York City were wearing them, and the prices and availability on Amazon suggested supply issues.  It didn’t seem worth the bother.

In March, as the emergency heated up, my wife asked me about getting masks.  Our leadership at the time said that masks weren’t necessary for most of us, and we should refrain from using or acquiring them to save them for health care workers who really needed them.  Most of the masks were (and are) made in China, and the supply chain had been disrupted.  Overall, it didn’t seem worth the trouble, and as the drug stores all had signs advising ‘No Masks Available,’ I let it be.

On closer examination, the blue masks that were commonly worn by health care workers and now making a broader appearance aren’t meant to protect the wearer from the environment.  The original use case for the masks, which is also true for Covid, is that it contains the wearer’s emissions, which may carry the virus even though the wearer has no symptoms.  Health care workers commonly work with people whose immune systems are compromised, so they wear the masks to protect their patients from whatever microbes they may be carrying.

If you want to protect yourself from the virus with a mask, you need N95 or better, and if you’re a guy, you need to be clean-shaven.  When I got tested for Covid a couple of months ago, the doctor performing the test appeared in a bunny suit with a full face covering, which is probably as good as one can do while still being in the same room.

My wife had been following events in Korea, and since I was reluctant to run out and buy masks, she made up her own, following instructions on YouTube, from paper towels, adhesive tape, and elastic strapping.  Apparently, the Korean government had donated much of the country’s mask supply to China, so Koreans needing masks had to improvise.  My wife’s masks were comfortable and didn’t look overly dorky; I still carry a couple in my bag in case the mask I’m wearing gets soggy or otherwise troublesome.

In my travels on the Internet, I came across the Origin Maine Defender mask (no longer available), a gaiter made of stretchy synthetic fabric into which one can insert additional filter media (I used a paper towel).  I wore them for work: they were a bit uncomfortable and got soggy if I was exerting myself and sweating.  But thin gaiters aren’t really very good at containing one’s emissions, so I can’t recommend that alternative.

Later in the spring, we got a few dozen bandanas in different colors.  I gave some to my son, who wore them as bandanas.  My wife and I wear them folded up, with elastic strapping to hold them in place.  They’re colorful (my wife and I like to wear matching colors when we’re out together), comfortable, more effective than the Defender gaiter, and cheap.

New York rules (I’m reluctant to call them ‘laws’ because they’re rooted in executive orders from Uncle Andy, and not passed by the state legislature) require masks on public transit, in places of business (except while actually eating at a restaurant), and outdoors when social distancing can’t be maintained.  I’ll wear a mask while walking on the street, but take if off to ride a bike.

I doubt the mask actually does anything.  My wife and I tested negative a couple of months ago, and we haven’t felt any better or worse since then.  Beyond that, of all the thousands of Covid tests performed in New York State over the past month, less than 1% came back positive.  However, if indulging a little public paranoia will help us get back to normal, I’m all for it.

Meanwhile, the supply chains have gotten back to normal, and cheap Chinese blue masks are once again available.  As an employer, I’m required to have masks available for my employees, so I have a couple of boxes in the office.  But I’ve never worn one myself.

Tyranny with your Dinner?

Out in the wider world, things are slowly getting back to normal, almost:

  • Buses are back to the normal routine of getting on the front end of the bus and paying the fare, but the white line beyond which passengers are not permitted to stand when the bus is in motion has been relocated to keep passengers from standing too close to the driver.
  • Museums are reopening, but one must make a reservation before visiting.
  • Blink, the gym I used to frequent before the emergency, has reopened.  But the showers are closed, and one is encouraged to make a reservation.  I can resume my membership, or keep it suspended until the end of October.  I think I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, a proper meal inside a restaurant is still prohibited in New York City.  There’s outdoor dining, which is OK while the weather is nice, if one doesn’t get caught in a public protest (‘shame on you for flaunting your dining privilege!’), but will likely not be so wonderful come November.  One can also cheat a bit, and go outside the city (Hoboken is a few minutes from Greenwich Village on the PATH train), but that’s a so-so substitute.

Uncle Andy (Governor Cuomo) and Uncle Bill (Mayor DeBlasio) were maundering earlier this month about how resuming indoor dining would be ‘too risky.’  After raging at President Trump and insisting that they would make decisions driven by science and data, they fumbled about uselessly.  Governor Cuomo feared that indoor dining would bring about a resurgence of Covid… unless, perhaps, we allocated 4,000 police officers to mind people’s behavior in restaurants.  (In fairness, this is the same Uncle Andy who predicted dire consequences without 30,000 ventilators for the anticipated Covid victims of New York State.)  While I first came across this item on a conservative news feed, I checked a couple of more mainstream news sources to make sure it was real.

The Labor Day weekend felt close to normal.  My wife and I had lunch in Little Italy: there were fewer people in the streets than in past years, but it was comfortably busy.  We could get a seat on the subway returning home, but not a socially distant seat like in past weeks. 

A couple of days ago, Uncle Andy relented and put forth a plan for indoor dining in New York City, to take effect 30 September.  Restaurants would be limited to 25% capacity, with tables at least six feet apart, no seating at the bar, temperature checks at the door, and masks required to be worn when not seated.

But the worst part, to my view, is that one member of each party must identify himself for contact tracing.  If someone visits the same restaurant and later turns up positive, the Covid police will show up at my door demanding to know who I’ve been hanging out with for the past month.

The icky part is that restaurants with indoor and outdoor dining spaces (October is still mostly nice for outdoor dining in New York City) will probably collect contract tracing information from everyone, not just the indoor diners.  Choosing to eat outdoors to avoid contact tracing probably won’t work.

Oh, yes: New York City will provide ‘a team of 400 enforcement personnel’ to ensure compliance.  Not quite 4,000 cops, but it’s still onerous and stupid.

The saddest part is the response from the restaurant community reported on the New York State Web page.  The Restaurant Association and the owners of various restaurants are unanimous in praising and thanking Uncle Andy for his wise leadership.  Alas, he has them all by the throat.

Voting… Somehow

I’ve come to believe that voting ought to be a little bit difficult.

Voting shouldn’t be an ordeal or an all-day project, but for me, voting has always meant taking time on Election Day itself to go somewhere off the beaten path, wait in line, possibly as much as an hour, and vote.  In my work, some of the controls of the machinery are designed to be purposefully difficult to operate because they would be dangerous if used without specific intent.  To me, voting is a similar endeavor: it’s serious, and not to be done lightly.

New York mailed absentee ballot applications a few weeks before this year’s primaries, with helpful instructions: you couldn’t simply vote absentee because you were afraid of Covid, but if you wrote it up as a ‘health issue’ you were good to go.  In the spring, I had not yet returned to the office, but I had been going out for a walk every day, joining my wife for grocery shopping, and heading out to job sites: a trip to the polls didn’t seem particularly frightening.

I ultimately didn’t vote.  Biden had already won the Democratic Presidential nomination, and none of the candidates in the other races were different enough from their opponents to make a vote worthwhile.  Not making a decision is, itself, a decision.

New York took a reasonable approach in sending out absentee ballot applications before the election, and giving voters an alternative to voting in person.  It represented a minor change from established law and procedure, but was appropriate under the circumstances.  However, while the Presidential race was effectively already decided by the time New York held its election, some of the other races were undecided for weeks until all the absentee ballots could be counted or their disposition resolved.

Now that we know what happened, would this be the right thing for the general election?

In one respect, it may not matter: New York is a thoroughly blue state and will go for Biden no matter what.  But the New York experience suggests that mandating national vote-by-mail, as the Democrats are proposing, is a spectacularly bad idea.

  • First, it’s an unwarranted intrusion by the Federal government on a function that is the responsibility of state and local governments.  It’s the responsibility of the states, with their knowledge of local conditions, to decide the best method for their citizens to vote.
  • Contrary to the insistence of the news media, vote-by-mail fraud does happen: in fact, the results of a local election in New Jersey were thrown out by the courts just last week.  The potential for election fraud with mail voting has historically been recognized by both parties, until the Democrats decided a couple of years ago that such a thing just didn’t happen.  For my part, it appears the Democrats are more interested in grabbing power than in good governance: I wouldn’t put it past them to try to finagle the election.
  • But the real problem with a vast shift to mail-in voting is human error and the Postal Service.  When you vote in person, the election staffer is checking the paperwork and walking you through a process so simple as to be essentially foolproof.  If you make an innocent mistake with your mail-in ballot, like forgetting to sign the accompanying paperwork, you’ve lost your vote.  (Some places will give you the opportunity to rectify such errors, but that takes time.)  And even in the best of circumstances, lost or delayed mail, or mail without postmarks, could result in more people losing their votes than the margin of a close race.  The Postal Service is an imperfect organization, and even throwing $25 billion at it, two and a half months before the general election, isn’t likely to help.

At this point, alas, all I can do is hope for the best, and hope and pray for a calm and fair election.  If the election goes badly—no matter who wins—it will be a worse emergency than Covid.

On to August

It’s been a while since I’ve last posted.  I wrote some drafts after George Floyd, but realized that I really shouldn’t write about race relations: whatever I might post could be used against me, to no practical gain.  The only thing that I think I can safely say is this:  When I was a kid growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, I was sure that sometime in the future, say, 2020, we would be past fussing over race, and look at black and white as no different from blond or brunette, or tall or short.

That clearly hasn’t happened.

*          *          *

No, we haven’t gotten sick: my wife, my son, and I are still very much alive and well.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I felt icky.  I was really achy, and excused myself from work ‘in an abundance of caution,’ although I could have toughed it out.  I went back to bed, slept a couple of hours, and felt partway better by lunchtime, and well enough in the afternoon to take my daily walk (2-3 miles, although sometimes longer).

There was no fever, no shortness of breath, no coughing: none of the things we were told to look out for in March.  But the symptoms of Covid have broadened to the point where anything beyond a broken bone is suspect.

I was not to go out into the field for work until I was tested.  I went for a test the next day.

“Was it as horrible as you imagined?” the doctor asked after sticking the swab up both nostrils.

“It was about 80% as horrible as I imagined.”  I think I’d prefer a blood test.

My wife went for the test at the same time.  She has been following what’s happened in Korea in response to Covid, and was wondering why there wasn’t a blood test, as is apparently standard there.  She was also frustrated that we had to wait a week and a half for the result.

The tests came back negative.

Next time, unless I wake up barfing up a lung, I think I’ll tough it out, even though the rules expressly forbid that.

*          *          *

We’ve gotten through all four phases of Uncle Andy’s Four-Phase Plan in New York City.  Some things, like mass entertainments, were never in the plan, perhaps to be resumed when the public perception of the danger, rather than the danger itself, had passed.

Other things got tossed over the side, including:

  • Gyms:  I’ve worked around this by ditching the subway and taking a Citi Bike most of the way to and from the office (as far as I can get in 45 minutes) and walking the rest.  I’ve managed to resist what in some quarters has been called the ‘quarantine fifteen.’  The gym owners in New York State have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state; we’ll see how they prevail against Uncle Andy.
  • Indoor dining:  This may seem a bit of an extravagance, but ‘dining’ in this context also refers to places like McDonald’s.  You can get a bite there, but sitting in the air-conditioned dining room to eat it is not an option.  Restaurants have set up temporary seating areas in the sidewalks and curb lanes, and it’s really nice if the weather holds, but November is coming.
  • Movie theaters:  Perhaps it’s just as well, as there haven’t been any movies that I’ve really wanted to see in years.  (In the 1990s, there were a couple of worthwhile movies every month.)  But it’s a downer not to be able to duck out of the heat of the day for a bit.
  • Museums:  I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘let’s go to the museum today.’  But it’s a pleasant, contemplative alternative for an afternoon’s leisure.  I do miss it.  The Metropolitan Museum is planning to reopen on 29 August… if Uncle Andy says it’s OK, which seems unlikely.

At least one can escape the heat by going shopping, although my wife has remarked that Macy’s hasn’t updated their stock in the month or so since they’ve reopened.  I guess springtime clothing will still work in the late summer and early fall.

At the Epicenter

New York City is the epicenter of coronavirus death. 

I don’t want your pity.  The reality is that the vast majority of us haven’t even gotten sick.  We’re carrying on, as best as anyone can.

I also wish you wouldn’t gloat.  Not because it hurts my feelings, but because we don’t fully understand what’s happening, and while you’re not suffering now, your turn may come next week, next month, or next winter.  For my part, I believe the explosion of Covid in the city means that we are taking our pain now, and any future outbreaks will be less severe.

New York City has been a big, densely packed, dirty city for over 150 years.  Its character as such is independent of the politics of whoever may be Mayor or Governor.  While we can fault our leadership for what they might or might not do, the essential character of New York City, and consequent risk of disease, is a fact of life and not the politicians’ fault.

Much has been written about the subway as a vector for the coronavirus.  Uncle Andy, last week, ordered the subways closed late at night for cleaning.  While that may make some people feel good, it won’t change much.  The trains and stations were cleaned periodically even before Covid, and an enhanced cleaning regime, in itself, doesn’t require the system to be shut down.  The only difference the nighttime shutdown makes is that the homeless will be chased off the trains for a few hours every night.  But while the subway almost certainly had a role in spreading the virus through the city, blaming the spread of the virus, and the death toll, on the subway seems a bit simplistic.

Over the last week, I’ve pulled together data from various places:

PopulationCasesper 1000Deathsper 1000
NYC and vicinity:
NYC8,399,000174,70920.8019,5402.33
Westchester/NY968,81530,70831.701,3051.35
Nassau/NY1,356,56437,59327.712,3401.72
Suffolk/NY1,487,90135,89224.121,5471.04
Hudson/NJ672,39115,76923.458451.26
Essex/NJ (Newark)798,97514,52118.171,2821.60
Other US cities:
Detroit672,6629,38613.951,0851.61
DC702,4555,0167.142510.36
Orleans/LA (New Orleans)391,0066,54816.754411.13
Philadelphia1,584,06415,1379.566380.40
Allegheny/PA (Pittsburgh)1,216,0451,3451.111020.08
Cook/IL (Chicago)5,150,23343,7158.491,6730.32
Los Angeles/CA10,040,00026,2172.611,2560.13
King/WA (Seattle)2,252,7826,5452.914630.21
NY/NJ vs other states
New York State19,453,561330,40716.9826,2431.35
New Jersey State8,882,190135,84015.298,9601.01
Other 48 + DC299,903,772817,4012.7341,9630.14
Europe
London UK8,982,00018,0002.005,2310.58
Ile de France (Paris) FR12,210,00023,7571.956,1160.50
Madrid ES6,642,00062,9899.488,4201.27
Stockholm SE974,0738,5368.761,288 (1)1.32
Coronavirus in Various Places

Note 1: Estimated.  I don’t have a death toll for Stockholm by itself, but Stockholm has less than 10% of the population of Sweden, and about a third of the reported coronavirus cases.  I’ll overestimate a bit and presume that it has 40% of Sweden’s reported 3,220 coronavirus deaths.

These figures were captured at various times last week, and not all on the same day. 

For the moment, let’s focus on the death tolls: the number of reported cases depends on the availability of testing, which is more a function of politics than biology.  But dead is dead, even though politics figures here, too: about 1/4 of New York City’s dead are ‘probable’ as opposed to ‘confirmed’ Covid cases.  Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.

The next highest city after NYC, in terms of Covid death rate, is Detroit.  But Detroit has no subway, and having suffered a great loss of population, is nowhere near as dense.  The places with comparable death rates are all in the suburbs of NYC.  Is the virus somehow wafting out of the city itself?  Do commuter trains have a role to play?

Looking at other American cities, there doesn’t seem to be much correlation.  Philadelphia, DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles all have subway systems, but have lower death rates.  In fairness, their subways are not as extensive as New York’s.  Meanwhile, New Orleans has no subway, but a higher death rate.

And all the European cities have extensive subway systems, but lower death rates, even Stockholm, which has refrained from the lockdowns in effect pretty much everywhere else.

Meanwhile, I’m also compelled to wonder about the wisdom of locking everything down.  It was OK as emergency measure before we knew quite what would happen.  But as a policy, I suspect that it only nibbles around the edges in terms of limiting the spread of the virus.

When this emergency passes, we need to calmly analyze and identify the factors that led to the rapid spread of Covid in NYC and other hot spots around the country and around the world.  And while it’s easy to blame the politicians or the subway, I suspect the reality will be a bit different.

Asbestos and Corona

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral, found in nature, which was for many years used for fireproofing and other thermal insulation.  It’s still one of the best thermal insulators known.  But asbestos fibers, when inhaled, lead to cancer and other lung diseases.  Asbestos has been the subject of vast litigation, and there is an industry built around the removal or abatement of asbestos.

The incidence of disease and death from asbestos has a random character.  In the time before the danger of asbestos was widely recognized, some people worked around asbestos their entire lives with no ill effect; others fell deathly ill over the course of a summer internship at the asbestos plant.  Most cases, though, involved repeated exposure over time.

Today, the discipline and procedures of asbestos abatement are built around the premise that the danger of asbestos is not random.  The probability of disease on exposure to asbestos above the ‘safe level’ is presumed to be unity, i.e. the stuff is presumed to be lethal.  Workers tasked with asbestos abatement must wear protective clothing and masks, and special arrangements are made to ventilate the work area and prevent asbestos fibers from escaping outside.

In an industrial environment, these rules make sense.  Employers are required to provide a safe work environment, providing training and protection against hazards in the workplace.  It would not be OK for an employer to pass the risk of illness of an incomplete protective regime to his employees, even with their informed consent.

But this character of randomness associated with asbestos applies to other agents in the environment, including tobacco and (this season’s favorite!) viral exposure.

Last week, 60 Minutes ran a segment on the military’s response to coronavirus.  The military had to develop policies and procedures on the spot as the threat emerged, without data on how deadly the virus might be or its propagation.  The result was a regime similar to asbestos abatement: the virus is presumed to be deadly wherever it might appear, and anyone not known to be safe is presumed to carry it.  Social distancing (‘tactical dispersion’) and hygiene procedures are ruthless.

And for the military, these rules make sense.  The first mission of the military is to be ready to carry out whatever other missions may be necessary, and being inconvenienced is part of military life.

But is this approach the right one for the rest of us?

What we are starting to know now from data is what many of us suspected in February: Covid-19 is similar to the seasonal flu.  It spreads almost as broadly as the seasonal flu, and while it is more serious than the seasonal flu, it’s not so deadly as to merit panic.

*          *          *

Prospect Park on a Saturday Afternoon

Yesterday, my wife and I bought lunch in a local pizzeria and enjoyed it al fresco in Prospect Park.  We took off our masks to eat and watched the people go by.  It was a glorious day: the first real spring day this season.  The park seemed busier than a normal Saturday: with everything else closed, what else was there?  We took a long walk, and when I got home, I realized I had a little sunburn.  It felt good.

Families hung out together in the park, but otherwise people were reasonably distancing themselves.  But I’m compelled to wonder: if you pass within eight feet of, say, 1,000 people, are you really safer than sitting six feet from four or five people in a subway car?

Were we taking our lives in our hands enjoying a sunny day in the park?  Even knowing about the virus, I find that really hard to believe.

Let’s End This

One of the reasons I don’t write more regularly is that I don’t like to repeat myself.  Too much of what I read on current affairs is people banging the same drum about systemic racism, or taxation being theft, or whatever.

But I’ll repeat myself a bit here.

We need to end this emergency soon.

The virus is a force of nature at this point: the government cannot protect us from it.  The one thing that the government might be able to do is forestall a disaster such as happened in China, Italy, and Spain, where so many people got sick at once as to overwhelm the health care system.  It doesn’t take that many people for that to happen: if 1% of a community got sick and descended on its hospitals all at once, the result would be worse than anything seen so far.

That, fortunately, hasn’t happened, although for a handful of New York City hospitals, it got close.  The number of new cases is starting to level off, and the number of hospitalizations is dropping, never having gotten close to the available space.  The Navy hospital ship Comfort, having arrived in New York City at the end of March to supplement available hospital space, is leaving, having treated a grand total of 179.

About a week ago, Governor Cuomo extended the emergency two weeks, to 15 May.  And if current trends hold, that’s a good place to start.  I don’t expect all the restrictions to be lifted at once, and even if they were, the public would likely still avoid large gatherings like sporting events. But I’m hoping that a month from now, I can take my wife to dinner.

Every state is different, and under our republic, decisions like this are made on the state level.  New York has suffered, and is recovering, but for other states, the worst may be yet to come.  And for some states, ‘the worst’ may not be that severe to begin with.

43 of the 50 states implemented some form of stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus.  At the time, we weren’t sure what would happen.  We didn’t have, as I sometimes like to say at work, the dimensions of the problem.

Meanwhile, there are the seven states, and Sweden, that didn’t force everyone to stay at home.  Most of the states in question are sparsely populated, but Sweden isn’t that sparse, and has some major cities.  Even though they didn’t have Uncle Andy’s guidance, they didn’t get whomped like New York City. 

Our understanding now is still incomplete, but way better than what we had a month ago.  To those who say, ‘the science should determine when it’s safe to reopen,’ I’m compelled to point out that any decision of this nature is an exercise in risks and statistics.  (Statistics is a science, too!)  Even deciding to wait for a vaccine is a statistical exercise, one that should properly consider the secondary effects of prolonging the emergency for another year.

So now is a good time to think about lifting the restrictions we’ve been under for the past month, based on the facts on the ground.  Mid-May is a good place to start for New York; other places might take longer, and some may be ready to restart, taking baby steps at first, now.

Let’s get our dignity back, and get back to work.

Life Goes On

The father of a friend and colleague passed away from the effects of Covid-19 about two weeks ago.  I’m sorry for my friend and what he has suffered.

I was working with him on site last week, and I felt it best not to talk about the coronavirus or the current emergency.  My friend had his professional demeanor back, but it clearly wasn’t the time.

I’ve remarked in these pages (in brief) that the danger of the coronavirus, while real, has been overblown and used for political purposes.  But am I wrong to believe that?  Is it cruel and heartless, given that people are dying? 

The virus, at this point, is a force of nature.  It doesn’t care what we think or say about it.  We can’t control it.  We can only try to conduct ourselves to moderate its effects.

But we need to be mindful that our efforts to moderate the virus have their own effects.   While they may not be as lethal as the coronavirus, they bring their own pain and suffering.  And to say those effects don’t matter ‘because people are dying’ is the worst kind of virtue signalling.

Death hurts.  But life must go on.

*          *          *

Washington Square Park

Last Sunday, my wife and I went to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, wearing masks made from matching bandanas.

There were fewer people in the park than a normal springtime Sunday, and people were reasonably distancing themselves, but it felt, for once, normal.  A couple of musicians were playing.  We sat on a bench, listened to the music, and contemplated the scene.  It felt good.

Musicians in Washington Square Park

Are We There Yet?

Back on St. Patrick’s Day, when the emergency was clanging down on us (it must be really dire to close the bars for St. Patrick’s Day!), I took the semi-wild guess that the emergency would last between six and eight weeks.  Now that we’re about halfway through, I’m contemplating how the emergency might end.

Three scenarios come to mind.  But before I examine them, I’ll share some basic assumptions:

  • Whatever the virus’s origins, it is now a force of nature, and will not take instructions from us.
  • Its spread cannot be stopped, only moderated.
  • In the long term, it will become part of the biological landscape.  It cannot be mopped up and sent back to China.

With that in mind:

Scenario One: Flatten the Curve and Be Done with It

If we take the premise that this business of shutting everything down was merely to ‘flatten the curve’ and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, then in another 3-5 weeks, the number of new cases should be small enough that we can start easing the restrictions.

We can let most businesses open, including (perhaps especially!) restaurants, although large public gatherings like sporting events and rock concerts will still have to wait.  I’d hope for at least Minor League Baseball (with its smaller venues) this summer.

We can expect testing of sample populations to get a better handle on how the virus has already spread.  However, the decision would necessarily be a judgement call, and entail some measure of risk.  Also, while the testing and setting of guidelines may be Federal endeavors, the restrictions we have now are set on the state level, and will have to be released the same way.  That’s how we’re set up in our republic.

The virus will indeed spread more readily when restrictions are eased: there will be an increase in the number of new cases, and some people will die as a result, who wouldn’t have died under the other scenarios (at least not from Covid).  But because many more people will have already been exposed, the increase will be more modest.

Scenario Two: Test Everyone

If we deem the risk of more new cases to be unacceptable, the next approach would be to test the entire population so that the virus can be tracked absolutely.  This would be a vast enterprise and would take at least 3-4 months.

I’m also not clear on what would happen.  Since I haven’t been seriously ill since the beginning of 2018, if I were tested, I’d expect one of two results:

  • I’m negative.  Would that mean that I’d remain under the quasi-lockdown while others got back to work?  Given the choice, I’d prefer to go forth in the world and take my chances.
  • I have antibodies, which means that I’ve been exposed, but haven’t gotten sick:  I had a brief but nasty bout with flu-like symptoms early in February.  I skipped a couple of gym sessions but otherwise held together.  Maybe that was Covid?  I don’t know.  In any case, if I’ve been exposed, the authorities would then presumably chase through my associates to see how I might have been exposed, or whom I might have exposed.

And what happens if I have antibodies and my wife is negative (or vice versa)?  Will one of us have to move out of the house so the other can be isolated?

The coronavirus is not Ebola.  It spreads rapidly, to the point where contact tracing—especially after the fact—is pointless and silly.  Attempting to trace anyway is also an invasion of our civil liberties.  And doing so sets the precedent for the next emergency (viral or otherwise).

After all, never let a crisis go to waste.

Scenario Three: Vaccinate

If we’re not willing to accept the risk of simply going back to business, and trying to track everyone’s status with the virus isn’t practical, then the third alternative is to wait for a vaccine.  In the very best case, a vaccine might be ready late this year or early next year.

But, given the choice, would I get vaccinated?  My wife and I don’t get flu shots, and from what I know now about coronavirus and Covid, I’d be genuinely reluctant to get a shot of a hastily-thrown-together brew of God knows what.  Then again, if the choice were to get the shot or stay locked up at home, that might be different.

I’ve reviewed the stay-at-home orders put forth by various communities, and they all, so far, admit going out for exercise while maintaining social distancing from others.  A new and improved version, to encourage vaccination, might reconsider this proviso, requiring the unvaccinated and unexposed to stay at home.

If it came to that, and we all decided to get the shot, the emergency would likely be over sometime next year.

But I don’t think we have a year.

I came across an interesting datum the other day.  Since the coronavirus crisis began, ridership on the New York subways is down 92%.  Crime in the subways is down… wait for it… by only 3%.  The people who earn their living through crime are presumably mostly young and healthy, still need to earn a living, and aren’t deterred by Uncle Andy telling them to stay home.

We’re only a little way into this emergency, and people aren’t desperate… yet.  But that will change after a couple of months.  Moreover, other people who aren’t desperate at that point will come to resent the government for continuing what appear to be unnecessary restrictions, and may want to take matters into their own hands.

If the emergency continues for more than a couple of months from now, I expect that there will be violence, first in the relatively small-scale crimes of the desperate, but getting worse.

A colleague sent me a meme about ending the emergency by Independence Day, 4 July.  That seems a practical threshold, as much for the meaning of Independence Day as for the time span between now and then.  If we are not back to enjoying our essential freedoms by Independence Day, we should presume that it will be a long, long wait.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I hope to God we end up following the first scenario.  We need our freedom and our dignity far more than we need some incremental (and more than likely illusory) safety.